War veterans often see horrible things in the course of battle that can stay with them for a long time afterwards. Can Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing or EMDR be effectively used to treat war veterans and other people recovering from combat experiences or living in war zones?
EMDR can be a very effective treatment for all forms of trauma, and especially trauma caused by war and combat experiences. The entire methodology of EMDR is designed to allow patients to process and “digest” trauma that has been stuck inside them and continues to distress them.
It has proven very effective in this regard for all types of trauma across the board and is well worth looking into for war veterans struggling with trauma as a result of their experiences.
There is no doubt that what many soldiers go through in the course of combat is traumatic and leaves long lasting symptoms in many veterans, in more extreme cases leading to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD. This can manifest in many different ways, including numbness, depression, flashbacks, anger, nightmares, sleep disturbance, and negative changes in living patterns.
There are also other forms of treatment for trauma, like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or CBT, but EMDR in particular has proven itself so powerful in treating trauma that is an officially recognized treatment for this purpose by the World Health Organization.
The methodology however is slightly unusual despite it’s well established effectiveness. Let’s look in more detail at how exactly EMDR works and why it can be so effective in treating trauma for war veterans.
The EMDR Process in Brief
We have already covered how EMDR works in detail in our lengthy article on the topic; however we will summarize the main steps of the treatment below. It has been around for several decades now and has been well formalized and refined into a very specific 8 step process.
The general idea behind the treatment is to tap the person back in neurologically to past distressing experiences, and then use eye movements or some other form of bilateral stimulation to prompt the mind/brain to process these memories to resolution.
Once processing has taken place, healthier, more self enhancing beliefs are placed on top of any negative feelings and beliefs that may have been attached to the trauma. Here are the general steps:
- Client History – Identify target memories.
- Preparation – Prepare the client appropriately for the therapy.
- Assessment – Fully assess and evaluate target memories, feelings, beliefs etc.
- Desensitization – Use eye movements or other forms of bilateral simulation to process memories.
- Installation – Install positive beliefs about self to replace negative beliefs and affects associated with memories.
- Body Scan – Eliminate any remaining physiological symptoms with further bilateral stimulation.
- Closure – Return client to safe calm equilibrium as session ends.
- Re-evaluation – Check that all aspects of memory have been fully processed.
This is just a general outline and of course each therapist may tailor the process for each patient, since every person and every case of trauma is different. Sometimes audio instead of visual stimulation, or tapping, may be used, but the general idea is still the same – access and process disturbing memories to resolution.
A Very Effective Treatment For War Trauma
Seeing as this is a treament specifically designed for the treatment of trauma, it is perfectly suited to the PTSD often suffered by war veterans and victims of other severely distressing experiences. It is designed to stimulate the mind/brain to process the disturbing memories in way they couldn’t at the initial time it happened, either because it was too distressing or there were too many distressing things happening at once.
The mind can “freeze up” in this scenario and be unable to process the trauma. It then stays stuck inside the person and continues to manifest with the PTSD style symptoms like depression, flashbacks and so on. There needs to be a way of re-accessing and processing this stuck trauma and EMDR has proven to be an excellent solution.
It appears that providing the distraction of the hand moving backwards and forwards whilst the person is focusing in on the memory allows the mind to “loosen up” and “blur” the memory and reduce it’s emotional sting and intensity.
If the processing is successful with EMDR then the memory loses it’s distressing element and the person is able to let it go and move on from it more easily. They are unburdened from it.
Linked below are some studies showing the effectiveness of EMDR in treating trauma for war veterans. See also the success stories further below for some video accounts of EMDR effectively helping out war veterans.
- 2008 Study on EMDR for War Veterans
- 2018 Study on Different EMDR Treatment Schedules for War Veterans
- EMDR International Association’s Page on Combat Trauma and Links to Studies on EMDR
Some Videos on the Theory and Process Behind EMDR
The two videos embedded below from Australian EMDR practitioner Dr James Alexander are a superb in depth introduction to the issue of trauma and how the process of EMDR works to resolve it. Combined together they are perhaps the best video resources available online regarding trauma and EMDR and should be essential viewing for people looking to know more about the topic.
The first video covers more the history of how trauma has been viewed and diagnosed by society, including an in depth discussion of the trauma suffered by veterans in the aftermath of the Vietnam and Korean wars. The second video covers the exact process of how EMDR works in resolving trauma.
Combined together they are around 100 minutes long but are an excellent resource for war veterans or any other PTSD sufferers who are interested in pursuing EMDR as a potential treatment for trauma. Click on the videos to pop up a full size version of each video.
Some War Veteran EMDR Success Stories
We want to also add to these more theoretical accounts a couple of actual accounts of EMDR being successfully used on war veterans. Both the accounts below report pretty much the standard of experience of most EMDR patients; the treatment allows the person to process and “digest” traumatic experiences to the extent they no longer bother the person and are seen as just another memory.
See our Find a Therapist page for links to resources which will help you find a qualified practitioner in your area if you would like to enquire further about the treatment.