A Weight Lifted
EMDR Therapy Helps to Reprocess Traumatic Events
Writer / Christy Heitger-Ewing
It was a sunny August day in 2017, the week following her son Matt’s 23rd birthday, when Teresa Youngen experienced a tragedy that no parent should ever have to endure. She was outside vacuuming her pool, and came inside and knocked on Matt’s bedroom door. When he didn’t answer, she opened the door and was horrified to find that he had taken his life.
Anyone who has ever lost someone to suicide can tell you there is no moving past such a catastrophic event. From that moment forward, there is “before” and “after,” but never again “normal.”
“It’s horrifying to walk into a room and realize that the person you love so, so, so much has done this to himself,” Youngen says.
As the weeks and months passed, Youngen was plagued by the terrible vision that was seared into her mind.
“It was like I’d been struck by a lightning bolt,” Youngen says. “In my mind’s eye, I’d see Matt in the closet and my blood pressure would spike, my throat would go dry, I’d feel sick to my stomach, I’d burst into tears, and I’d be right there, back in the moment.”
It got so bad that Youngen considered taking pills to numb herself.
“I knew I couldn’t go on living at that level of agitation and horror,” she says.
One day when she was attending a suicide survivor support group at Hendricks Regional Health, someone suggested she try eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy. During EMDR the patient thinks about the trauma, while the therapist waves a hand or baton in front of them as they follow the movement with their eyes. The therapy, which helps the brain process memories and reduce negative feelings about them, has been around since the 1980s but has grown in popularity in recent years.
“With EMDR, we go back,”says Wendy Byrd, president of the EMDR International Association. “We look at how your past may be affecting what’s happening to you currently. It’s changing the way that the experience is stored, and when the brain changes the way it’s stored, you feel differently about it.”
Through EMDR, Youngen found that her brain was pulled away from reprocessing certain thoughts.
“It’s like being stuck in a rut that you can’t get yourself out of, but with EMDR there is this second thing that’s going on, so now your brain is distracted and is able to reprocess it,” Youngen says. “You’ll never forget it, but you get away from that autonomic response of sky-high blood pressure, anxiety, crying and crashing. The memory is still painful, but EMDR made it so that it’s no longer debilitating.”
Emily Koehler, LMHC, lead therapist at the Willow Center in Brownsburg, finds this therapy to be beneficial for clients who have experienced trauma that is negatively impacting their life.
“This could be something that happened last week or several years ago,” says Koehler, noting that the eye movement portion of EMDR helps to stimulate both hemispheres of the brain, assisting with bypassing the part of the brain that has gotten stuck due to the trauma. “I love utilizing EMDR because it empowers clients and helps them build new beliefs around their trauma, promoting inner peace. Each session begins and ends with grounding and stabilization practices, and clients build the inner resources to self-regulate between sessions.”
Koehler notes that in cases where eye movements are not possible or appropriate for a client, they can offer alternatives for bilateral stimulation.
Youngen felt instant relief after just the first session.
Because EMDR worked so well with reprocessing this traumatic image, Youngen decided to use EMDR to help her reprocess other thoughts that trigger her. For instance, the sequence of events that led to finding her son began with entering her house through her back door. As a result, she has refused to use that door ever since.
“It’s as if my brain is telling me, ‘If you never go through that back door, that event never happened,’” Youngen says. “My brain processes that door as the portal to hell and that if I go through it, my life will be forever horrible.”
She even hung a blanket over the door to avoid seeing it.
“It’s been my coping strategy, but the problem with coping strategies is that they get you through the day, not the rest of your life,” Youngen says.
In March of 2020, she decided she was ready to tackle this issue so she started EMDR sessions with her therapist. Following her first appointment, she felt so empowered that she drove straight home and removed the blanket from the door.
“I was super excited,” she says. “As I looked outside I thought, ‘I can do this. I’m going to reclaim an area of the house that I truly enjoy.’”
Unfortunately, soon thereafter, COVID-19 hit and she was unable to see her therapist in person. Without that reinforcement, she found herself draping the blanket over the door again. Now, however, she is once again seeing her therapist and making progress using EMDR.
“I needed relief because there were days when I thought I was going to fall off this cliff and be completely unable to function,” says Youngen, who encourages anyone who struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder to consider EMDR. Veterans, survivors of violent crime, those involved in accidents or natural disasters, and emergency responders can find healing in this therapy.
Youngen has seen others who have benefitted from this type of therapy. For instance her niece, who was an emergency medical technician, witnessed a traffic accident that was burned into her brain, making it difficult for her to eat and sleep. Youngen recommended EMDR.
“While it’s not a panacea or a one-size-fits-all kind of thing, it can be so helpful if you’re open to it,” Youngen says.
September is National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. If you are feeling overwhelmed by feelings of depression and anxiety, call 800-273-8255 or text “TALK” to 741741. For more information, contact the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention at afsp.org.
Hendricks Regional Health’s suicide survivor support group meets on the first and third Tuesdays of the month from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. For more information, contact Sharon Samsell at 812-494-7783.