In 2004, the worst tsunami in recorded history hit the coast of Sumatra, Indonesia, killing around 230 000 people. It was estimated that it would take 10 to 15 years to rebuild what was lost or damaged. One of the largest humanitarian outreach programmes in the world was launched: money, food, clean water, medicine etc. were sent from across the world, but none of this could help with the widespread psychological trauma that the survivors suffered. How does one deal with trauma of this magnitude resulting from natural or manmade disasters? I went to speak to Juan van Wyk, a clinical psychologist, about a unique approach called Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR).

A massive disaster gives rise to a lot of trauma, both physical and psychological.

The latter generally occurs among the survivors. Those nearest to disaster survivors are often simply grateful that the people are still alive and physically relatively unharmed – they may have a few broken bones and scars but after a while will be fine again.

However, what often happens during such a traumatic experience is that in the moment of the experience the survivors believed they were dying! This causes them to believe that they are, in actual fact, dead.

This thought and the huge emotional reaction, if left untreated, and more importantly, unprocessed, is the main cause of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in the world.

Today EMDR is acknowledged by the World Health Organization and is seen as one of the best treatments for PTSD. The Departments of Defense and Veterans’ Affairs also acknowledge it and say it is the best way of curbing the devastating effects of PTSD. Juan tells that he and his colleagues were trained in EMDR by a woman who works with the UN and is sent to train other practitioners in countries devastated by natural disasters or war. Although CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) and CISD (Critical Incident Stress Debriefing) are also commonly used, EMDR has proved to be the most effective in dealing with trauma on this scale.

The reason for the success of EMDR is mainly because the client does not have to relive the traumatic event. This is especially true in the case of gruesome events, or, for example, for war veterans who are reluctant to speak about what happened on the field. Hypnotherapy is often criticised precisely on this point since it causes the client to regress to that event and relive it, with the possibility of putting the client’s system back into shock. With EMDR the client has only to look back and remember what happened, while a therapist constantly puts him or her at ease with words such as: “You are safe. You are with me here in this office.” This is called a dual awareness: the client is looking at the past while being aware that he or she is in the therapist’s office. Furthermore, the client does not have to tell the therapist what happened, as long as it is clear in his or her own mind. The experience is then processed by using bilateral brain stimulation.

Bilateral brain stimulation, which led to EMDR, was developed by Francine Sapiro. One day, as was her habit, she was walking on a pier thinking about various negative experiences she had had in her life. She had done this many times before. On this particular day, however, something changed. After her walk, she felt different – better. She could still remember what had happened to her, but the emotional effect wasn’t as strong. She attributed this to the fact that her eyes had moved spontaneously from left to right.

Later studies and scans indeed showed the difference between the brain after a trauma but before EMDR treatment and what the brain looks like after a trauma but the client has undergone EMDR treatment. Researchers discovered that when a person thinks about a specific event, certain parts of the brain light up. However, if the client relates the event again while moving his or her eyes from left to right, another part of the brain lights up.

It is as if the memory had been shifted in the brain so that the whole brain is activated in order to process what happened.

Today EMDR practitioners do not make use of eye movement only. They also use sound stimulation in the form of a soft beeping sound that one can hear in one ear and then the other. Light physical touch on the knees or hands also works. The technique is more about moving the stimuli from left to right to create bilateral brain stimulation so that both hemispheres of the brain (right and left) are activated and not only the one where our emotions are stored. The more analytical side is used as well, thus creating optimal conditions for processing.

Often we walk around with unprocessed information and experiences inside of ourselves. This information and these experiences have only been stored, therefore they are still very much alive within us and their impact on our lives can be debilitating. However, the moment we can process the information or experiences and change the belief that was formed, the impact becomes less.

While both hypnotherapy and EMDR are means of processing experiences and changing the resulting limiting beliefs, Juan says he finds that most of his clients feel safer with EMDR. When choosing between the two modalities, he always has to determine whether the client has the ego strength to face his or her pain.

Ego strength is about finding the strength within ourselves to be able to face and overcome the challenges in our lives. “Can I become calm within myself? Can I regulate my emotions? Do I have the ability to acknowledge honestly whatever emotion arises, allow myself to feel it and analyse it accordingly?” Otherwise if we do not have this reservoir, this sense of mastery, chances are that we will dissociate seeing that, when we revisit a traumatic experience, our flight or fight response is triggered: if it is not safe enough, we may just flee.

Successful processing can transform people’s lives.

Juan shares specifically how people who have been in horrible car accidents have come to see him. Initially they were terrified of driving and refused to use any mode of public transport. With EMDR the person breaks the association he or she has with the event so that the fear of driving is lifted. They are once again able to get into their cars and drive off, suddenly able to do what they had been unable to do before.

Ultimately EMDR helps unblock the issues that prohibit us from living our lives fully.

Juan says treatments like hypnotherapy or EMDR are mainly about creating a heightened sense of consciousness. ”I become more aware of myself, my emotions, my thoughts and my body in order to understand the things that are holding me back. Ultimately it is about living a more conscious life, one where I am no longer being driven by past experiences and the emotions and beliefs they left me with. It helps me to understand myself better. It causes personal insight. It aids the process of becoming. It sets you on the path of becoming more and more who you truly are.”

Severe trauma can debilitate survivors to such an extent that they are often no longer able to do the things they once loved doing: they no longer have the energy or motivation for these activities and are unable to live their lives fully. In fact, they might as well have died. But EMDR helps to make living possible again – not only possible, but abundantly so, so that there is, after all, life after death!

Juan has his own practice at the Genesis Wellness in N1 City. If you would like to make an appointment with him, you can contact him at 021 595 0052 / 021 839 5529.

[Main image credit: Royalty free stock photos from Chiosea]