Case Study: Sam's EMDR Treatment
Sam underwent EMDR treatment after being diagnosed with C-PTSD following multiple and sustained traumas in childhood. Here, Sam explains more about the EMDR treatment, and how she’s now able to work, go out, have fun, and not live in relentless high alert anymore.
“I would say I have had CPTSD all my life as I had an abusive childhood and suffered bullying at school. I was 17 when I was first entered into mental health services as I found I had chronic low self-esteem, depression and anxiety. My GP referred me for counselling three times but I was always quick to be discharged due to clinical demand. In my 30s, I started feeling unwell again after a restructure at work left me with little work to do and I felt unwanted. Firstly, I tried private CBT for which I had 20 sessions of, but after a year I fell into the same old automatic negative thought process following more negative events at work. I then had private integrative psychotherapy for two years but when my therapist retired, I fell into difficulties yet again.
What always prompted my search for help was feelings of my heart racing, being overwhelmed, hypervigilance, feeling as though I always needed to keep busy, and living under a constant thought that something bad was going to happen. Eventually, my muscles tightened and I suffered with debilitating migraines. I had physiotherapy for these where it was thought I had been in a car accident; my neck was that tense and stiff. I didn’t know this back then but these are classic PTSD symptoms.
In June 2019 the stressor of a university exam pushed my mind into overdrive and as soon as the silent 3-hour exam started, I experienced severe emotional flashbacks and panic and I didn’t know what was happening. I felt powerless and helpless, like I wanted to run and hide. In the weeks that followed, I became increasingly unwell and I enlisted the help of yet another therapist, who explained CPTSD to me. This came as a bit of a shock because I associated PTSD to war veterans, however when I researched CPTSD everything fell into place and I immediately recognised nearly all of the symptoms (people pleasing, hypervigilance, high functioning behaviours, guilt, shame and isolation). In the weeks that followed, I had to visit my GP who signed me off work and my new counsellor recommended I see a trauma therapist.
I’m lucky to have medical insurance and I set about finding an approved trauma therapist. She rang me the same night I emailed her and after listening to my presenting complaints, she thought I might be suitable for EMDR. I had heard about this before as I know somebody who has had it and found it helpful, however they had it for PTSD and I didn’t know whether it would work for CPTSD. I had tried a range of treatments prior to this that didn’t really work that well, but I thought this was worth at least a try.
My initial thoughts of EMDR were mainly based around ‘how would following a light help re-programme my brain and the way I see the world’? I thought the concept was very simplistic and I have to admit I was a bit sceptical about the whole process. Nevertheless, I was just coming to terms with having CPTSD and I was trying to figure out what aspects of my personality were ‘me’ and what was my trauma, and I’d hoped EMDR could at least help me with this. My husband was incredibly supportive throughout my treatment.
I had EMDR with a private EMDR Practitioner as my health insurance offered it. I remember being very worried about my first session. What if I couldn’t build a rapport with my therapist? Will I be made to dig for traumatic memories straight away? What will actual EMDR be like? What will I feel like afterwards? The first session went well though as my therapist spent a lot of time getting to know me and she was lovely. She wanted to know what was going on in my life right now, we established a safe place and talked of safe people I could turn to and self-soothing techniques. I also chose the colour on my EMDR light – my favourite turquoise. I came out of that session feeling a lot calmer and it was incredibly positive to know I had trusted people and places I could bring out in future sessions if needed.
In the second session I actually started EMDR about half way through. We started with my first ever negative memory and my therapist asked me my level of distress from 1 to 7. She started the EMDR light and I followed it whilst it whizzed back and forth. After a few seconds, she asked me to recount what came up whilst following the light and I told her, then we worked at the same memory again on the light until my distress level came down. We finished the session by going to my safe place, something we’d do at the end of every session following this, and I felt calm on leaving the room. My therapist told me she’d never let me out of the building if I was ever in distress, which was reassuring.
Each week we’d work on a new memory, or pick up on a previous memory that still had a high distress level, the aim was to get each memory between 0 and 1 on the distress scale. I had 20 sessions in total and I’d estimate that around my 10th I started to feel better. I had also started a new job at around that point and was feeling happier and more settled. I could speak to my new colleagues without feeling ‘different’ and I was laughing and going out socialising again. Every time I felt overwhelmed or triggered in everyday life, I could go to my safe space or bring myself back to the present, something I had never been able to do previously. I was also able to resume university studies and sit exams again, which was a huge relief and achievement. On my 20th session we discussed my progress and it was felt I’d found it incredibly helpful. This time, I felt confident that I could tackle every day situations a lot better and rely less on counsellors and therapies in future. I was ready to be discharged.
These days, I still have triggers but they occur less frequently and at a much lesser intensity. I also have the tools to work on them if they get too severe, but a year and 3 months after being discharged I’ve not experienced anything too distressing. I feel I have much more control over my life as well as an awareness of who I am and what my trauma is; it’s easier to separate the two now I’m not living in a constant state of anxiety. I’m able to work, go out, have fun, and not live in relentless high alert.
Re-visiting traumatic memories can obviously be very unpleasant. My GP started me on antidepressants before I started treatment and I think this helped take the edge off the feelings in the initial sessions. Don’t feel ashamed if this is something you have to do. I’d also recommend to keep at it. It can feel a bit overwhelming at first and you don’t see instant results, but after a few sessions you hopefully start to notice the difference. Lastly, don’t suffer alone. It helped me to connect with fellow sufferers and follow PTSD UK on social media, who have a range of resources and advice available, as well as visit my GP.”
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Treatments for PTSD
It is possible for PTSD to be successfully treated many years after the traumatic event occurred, which means it is never too late to seek help. For some, the first step may be watchful waiting, then exploring therapeutic options such as individual or group therapy – but the main treatment options in the UK are psychological treatments such as Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprogramming (EMDR) and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).
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