EMDR as a Way to Treat Post-Traumatic Stress in Special Needs Parents, by Christy Wilken
Updated: May 10, 2020
At the beginning of this academic year, I walked in to attend Mass with my children at the Catholic school where they’d just been newly enrolled. Immediately, and very unexpectedly, I began having intense flashbacks to one of the worst days of my life, a retreat experience that had left me nearly catatonic with grief and depression. It had been held at the same parish — a building I hadn’t set foot inside once during the intervening two and a half years.
The walls began to feel like they were closing in. My palms began to sweat, my heart pounded in my chest, my ears roared. Tears flowed without interruption down my cheeks, and I stifled the urge to begin screaming. I frantically texted friends who had been there with me during the retreat, begging them to pray me through it.
Panic Rears Its Ugly Head
I was having a classic panic attack, but I had to stay. I had promised my children, yes, but I was also a lector for the first reading. It was the Feast of the Queenship of Mary. The choir, my nine-year-old towheaded daughter among them, began to sing a simple, charming tune to the Blessed Mother. “Ave Maria, alleluia,” they chanted, as I stared at the crucifix and implored my Mother for mercy.
That retreat had been for me the end of the beginning, or the beginning of the end, a Rubicon moment in my life. It was a necessary step to my emotional recovery, making peace with Oscar’s diagnosis and his complicated life, setting the stage for the miracles that would come to our family in Lourdes. I knew, without a doubt, that the things I had feared the day of the retreat had been redeemed beyond measure. Yet here I was, a quivering wreck in the same pews, because the floor tiles looked too familiar.
Special Needs Parents and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
In a paper published in 2009 in the journal Health Psychology, a group of researchers analyzed 16 studies reporting on the prevalence of PTSD in parents of children with chronic illness. In the pooled data, 22.8% of parents had PTSD. “For Parents of Ill Children, a Growing Recognition of PTSD.” Wall Street Journal, Feb 19, 2019
Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is an increasingly recognized and diagnosed disorder among parents of special needs children, many of whom experience traumatic incidents not just once, but regularly. One study, for example, found that mothers of autistic children experience levels of stress similar to those of soldiers in combat.
By good fortune, I was already seeing a therapist for anxiety that had been creeping up, crippling me in insidious and startling ways during my daily routines. By even greater fortune, she specializes in a form of therapy called EMDR, or Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. EMDR has been shown to be particularly effective in healing trauma and PTSD.
Healing from PTSD: Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing
During EMDR treatment, patients are asked to focus on a distressing memory, while the therapist provides some kind of bilateral sensory input. This might be analog, like tapping on alternate knees or making particular eye movements; in my case, I held an electronic buzzer in each hand, the speed and intensity of which the therapist could vary as I wished.
I had used this process to work through and heal some of the most obvious traumas and anxiety triggers, like Oscar’s first seizure and various hospital stays. On the following visit, we went back to the retreat experience.
Locating the Source of PTSD Stress
EMDR is not for the faint of heart. You have to go back into the fray. The point of the therapy is to reprocess the memories, reframing negative beliefs and emotional scars using more adaptive information and powerful positive truths. “Some of the studies show that 84%-90% of single-trauma victims no longer have post-traumatic stress disorder after only three 90-minute sessions,” according to the EMDR Institute.
My therapist was gentle and kind, asking me to describe what I felt in my body, whether there was a particular spot where the pain seemed to reside. Not at first — it was everywhere, all at once, too much. We turned the buzzers down to almost nothing and started with short durations, only a few seconds.
Over the course of a few more dives, I was able to tolerate longer stretches, with greater intensity. Each time, the therapist asked about my physical responses, negative thoughts, and the positive truths I could replace them with. We went at it again and again, and each time, the panic and pain lessened, and the peace increased.
EMDR Healing with a Catholic Twist
By the greatest good fortune of all, my therapist is not only loving, talented, and EMDR-trained, but also Catholic. The use of religious imagery and prayers are encouraged as healing tools.
An important part of healing any trauma, for Catholics, is to recognize the Father of Lies as the source of the negative thoughts, and Christ as the antidote to the poison. Over the course of the chapel incident, for example, my negative thought “I have been abandoned” gave way to “He will never leave me.”
The physical, bilateral input helps that psychological reprogramming to take root, forging new neurological pathways in your brain. (It’s theorized that the mechanism might be similar to REM sleep, which is how we naturally consolidate and store our daily experiences.) What a gift to have a tool that can assist us in reconstructing traumatic memories with Christ’s peace at the very foundation and heart of them, in place of deep fear and anguish.
Getting Started with EMDR Healing for PTSD
Disclaimer: If you’re worried about anxiety, depression, trauma, or PTSD, talk to a trusted medical professional. The following does not constitute medical advice or treatment, just tips from my personal experience.
You can use the site CatholicTherapists.com to find a Catholic therapist near you. If you find some — and I truly hope you do! — plug those names into the The EMDR Institute Clinician Search to see if any are trained in Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy.
There are some at-home, budget-friendly EMDR options (proceed at your own risk), ranging from YouTube videos for your eyes to follow to wearable devices. I haven’t tried them, but they may be worth investigating.
If you can’t find an EMDR therapist near you, try ones that specialize in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), which is a more common technique. EMDR has been shown to be more efficient than CBT at healing trauma and PTSD, but both are effective.
Christy Wilkens, is wife to a tremendously patient and tender husband, Todd, and the mother of six tireless (no, seriously–tireless) children. They live in a tumbledown farmhouse on five unkempt acres. She drives a 12 passenger van and her family lives and breathes audiobooks. We fulfill every stereotype you have about orthodox Catholic homeschoolers. She blogs at Faithful, No Successful where this post first appeared.