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PTSD and Trauma Self-Help and Self-Care: Safely Use EMDR Techniques Without a Therapist

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EMDR can be administered both by a therapist and yourself

EMDR can be administered both by a therapist and yourself

What is EMDR?

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) is a psychotherapy developed by Francine Shapiro, which works to alleviate the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

According to Shapiro, when a traumatic or distressing experience occurs, it may overwhelm normal cognitive and neurological coping mechanisms. The memory and associated stimuli are inadequately processed, and stored in an isolated memory network.

The goal of EMDR therapy is to process these distressing memories, reducing their lingering effects and allowing clients to develop more adaptive coping mechanisms. This is done by having clients recall traumas while following the therapist's hand movement, a light bar, alternating audio noises, or vibrations.

EMDR therapy can involve following hand movements, although this isn't the only option

EMDR therapy can involve following hand movements, although this isn't the only option

My experience of EMDR therapy

I experienced social anxiety throughout my teenage years, and was only diagnosed with PTSD relatively recently. This diagnosis explained the nightmares, dissociation, and severe feelings of "emptiness" and grief that I'd been facing for many years.

I went through my fair share of unhelpful therapists, one of whom was convinced I was suffering from nothing more than depression, and I contemplated trying to repress the negative memories and feelings once more.

However, I began therapy with a private EMDR therapist, and he has helped me considerably. I had an introductory session in which I explained my symptoms, and then approximately eight EMDR sessions. EMDR suited me because I dislike explaining my memories and experiences in depth to a relative stranger, and the therapy simply requires you to follow hand movements, a light bar, or similar stimulation, and then describe how you feel.

In my case, the significance of other memories and events became clear, and I was able to confront the negative experiences in a much more rational way than before.

Using EMDR for self-help

If your symptoms are severe, I would certainly recommend seeing an experienced therapist for a course of EMDR. Personally, I found that after a few sessions I was ready to help myself independently, although I made sure that I was at a safe point in my course of EMDR before doing this.

I've never aimed to overcome my PTSD entirely: as I've suffered from it for so many years, it's become almost a part of me. However, I wanted to leave the negative symptoms and emotions behind me. Through a course of therapy and regular use of EMDR self-help techniques, I can happily say that I have achieved this.

I'll now outline some of the techniques I use, which are largely sourced from Francine Shapiro's wonderful book Getting Past Your Past: Take Control of Your Life with Self-Help Techniques from EMDR Therapy. This book is a great way to complement EMDR therapy sessions, or to address less severe incidents of trauma or past negative experiences.

Visualising a happy, successful future can be useful if you suffer from PTSD or have experienced trauma

Visualising a happy, successful future can be useful if you suffer from PTSD or have experienced trauma

1. A happy future

  1. Relax and take several long, slow breaths. If you find your mind wandering, take another deep breath and bring it back to the exercise.
  2. Focus on a future situation you'd like to deal with.
  3. Decide how you would like to be seeing, feeling, acting and believing in that situation.
  4. Bring up a safe/calm place in your mind, perhaps by identifying an experience in your past where you succeeded.
  5. Now bring up the positive cognition "I can succeed". Fous on the positive feelings that come up, such as strength, clarity, confidence or calm.
  6. Focus on an image of doing well in the future situation. Focus on the positive feelings and emotions and adopt a posture that helps you feel confident.
  7. Run a movie in your mind of handling the situation well from start to finish. Make it colourful, exciting, vibrant and full of detail, and enjoy the positive feelings that come up.
  8. Imagine a challenge arising, such as a computer not working, and imagine handling it with confidence and calm.
  9. Run the movie through to a successful conclusion, and end the exercise feeling confident, well-equipped and ready.

2. Belly Breath

To help lower disturbance, inhale slowly and deeply while feeling your tummy expand. Then slowly exhale and feel your belly contract. Repeat several times until you feel a greater sense of calm.

3. Body Changes

Change your posture or facial expression to move from anxiety to excitement or other positive emotional states.

One of the most successful ways I have used to overcome anxiety associated with trauma is to blur the boundary between anxiety and excitement. When I experience low levels of anxiety and feel butterflies in my stomach, I ask myself, "how is this different from feeling excited?"

If you're nervous about a future event, try concentrating on the positive aspects of what you are about to do. Also, try moving your mouth into a smile or changing your posture. Shapiro suggests imagining a superhero giving the presentation. Allow yourself to step into the image and take that same stance. When we feel defeated, our postures automatically collapse. Bring your shoulders back, straighten up, lift your chin, smile, and you may well convince yourself that anxiety is irrational.

The Butterfly Hug is one of the most useful self-help tools for PTSD

The Butterfly Hug is one of the most useful self-help tools for PTSD

4. Butterfly Hug

I've outlined this technique in my Hub that outlines techniques to overcome social anxiety without medication. The "Butterfly Hug" is often used in trauma therapy, and has had success in helping those affected by natural disasters. I use the technique regularly, and find it so useful for difficult moments.

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  1. Cross your arms in front of you, with your right hand on your left shoulder and your left hand on your right. Close your eyes.
  2. Bring up an image of a safe or calm place along with a positive word that you associate with it. Let it fill your mind.
  3. Wait until you feel a state of safety or calm. Do not try to force this, but see if it comes naturally when you think about the safe or calm place and the associated word.
  4. When you feel safe and/or calm, tap your hands alternately on each shoulder slowly four to six times. Make sure you only do this when you feel calm and safe.
  5. Take a breath and see how it feels.
  6. Try it for one more set.
  7. Open your eyes.
  8. If the positive state increases, once again just close your eyes, allow yourself to feel the feelings, and bring up the word. As you feel the positive sense arise, again alternately tap each side four to six times.

You can use this technique to handle momentary disturbance, but it's good to reinforce the good feelings every so often when you're in a calm and safe place. This keeps the technique strong for when you need it most.

Use a cartoon character to address PTSD: it can help, really!

Use a cartoon character to address PTSD: it can help, really!

5. Cartoon character

When I'm having a bad day, I tend to have a critical voice telling me I haven't done something well enough, or that I'm not good enough. If you catch this happening, try remembering a cartoon voice from your childhood. Donald Duck and Popeye are ideas, although you can probably come up with something far more personal and amusing.

Close your eyes and bring up the critical voice from before. Notice how your body changes when you think of it.

Then make the voice in your head sound like the character and notice what happens. For most people, the disturbing feelings that go along with the critical voice disappear. The cartoon voice is instead associated with pleasant and funny memories, which can dispel the negative feelings you felt before.

This technique doesn't deal with the root cause of PTSD or trauma, of course, but it can get us back to a place of balance so we can deal with the current situation rationally and away from the influence of the past.

Imagining a "safe place" is one of the most helpful self-help techniques for PTSD

Imagining a "safe place" is one of the most helpful self-help techniques for PTSD

6. Four Elements

This technique can help ground you when you're feeling dissociative or affected by past memories.

  • Earth: Grounding, Safety in the Present/Reality: Take a minute or two to "land" and truly be in the present. Put both feet on the ground and feel the chair supporting you. Look around and notice what you see, alongside what you can hear.
  • Air: Breathing to Centre Yourself: You may have a favourite breathing exercise you can do here. Alternatively, breathe in through your nose to the count of four, hold it for two seconds, then breathe out for four seconds. You can repeat this around a dozen times, focusing on deep, slow breaths.
  • Water: Be Calm and Controlled to Switch on the Relaxation Response: Pay attention to your mouth, and see how much saliva you have in it. Make more by moving your tongue around and imagining the taste of lemon, chocolate, or a favourite food. When you are anxious your mouth often "dries", although this technique can reverse the response and help you relax.
  • Fire: Light Up the Path of Your Imagination: Bring up the image of a safe place or another positive resource. I usually imagine myself being in a large library, or being safe with my family. As you think about the positive thought or memory, focus on where you feel it in your body.
  • Now remind yourself that you are safe, and that you can continue to feel the security of your feet on the ground, feel centred as you breathe in and out, feel calm and in control as you produce more saliva, and let the fire light the path to your imagination to bring up an image of a place where you feel safe or happy.

8. Lightstream

If you are feeling disturbed, concentrate on the upsetting sensations in your body. Identify the following my asking yourself, 'If it had a _____, what would it be?" Fill in the blank with each word below:

  • shape
  • size
  • colour
  • temperature
  • texture
  • sound (high pitched or low)

Just notice the shape and its other characteristics. Now ask yourself: "what is your favourite colour, or one that you associate with healing?"

Imagine a light of this colour is coming in through the top of your head and directing itself at the shape of distress in your body. The light directs itself at the shape and resonates, vibrates in and around it. As it does this, what happens to the shape, size or colour?

If you find that the negative feelings change, then continue using the technique until you feel comfortable.

9. Self-care

If your regularly feel "I'm not good enough", or doubt your own ability to recover, make sure to access daily the memories that allow you to feel worthwhile. Remember events where you felt valuable or loved, or moments when you felt full of confidence and ability.

Savour those positive memories, feel the feelings, and let yourself enjoy them. Now concentrate on your body. Notice how you breathe, stand, and hold your head when you bring up the positive memories. if you feel yourself getting triggered, try changing your breath and posture back to the way you feel in the positive states.

Daily practice can help embed these positive emotions, beliefs and body sensations in habit, and make them more available when you need them most.

A diagram for self-care: the importance of looking after yourself cannot be underestimated

A diagram for self-care: the importance of looking after yourself cannot be underestimated


ceee on December 17, 2014:

You have a great resource. These are all the things they tell you in therapy sessions/group but don't give you in writing. Though I've never been able to find a safe place. Nothing feels safe. How do you create a safe place when nothing is safe?

Hypnotherapist-uk from London, England on June 06, 2014:

A very resourceful and helpful page. You seemed to have gained a lot from your EMSR sessions and your understanding of it has enabled you to do a lot more processing and releasing by yourself. In my view it is a great sign of being and feeling empowered if we use the new insights and techniques we may gain from a therapy session for ourselves.

Lucy (author) on June 02, 2013:

Also, I certainly agree that PTSD in women doesn't receive the attention that it does in veterans. Veterans have been through an awful lot, but this doesn't mean that other causes of PTSD should be dismissed. I think that PTSD caused by less publicised events, e.g. not war or abuse, is often dismissed by medical services, and I hope this changes with time. But you're right, it is expensive and tough, and very difficult for those who don't suffer from it to understand.

But I'm glad you feel free to get on with life now :)

Lucy (author) on June 02, 2013:

Thank you for your comment, MizBejabbers! I am very lucky that I've managed to find a way of maintaining my symptoms. However, just as you've said, I too suffer from anxiety and nerves. It's a lot harder to stabilise these symptoms, although with regular relaxation it does get easier. As I do not wish to take medication again, I think I'll always be the first to jump at little noises and perceived dangers, and I've realised that PTSD has become more of a part of me than something that can be simply overcome. I'm willing to accept this, as long as the symptoms do not intrude into my daily life with as much severity and regularity as before.

I'm so glad that you received a diagnosis and treatment for PTSD - without this life can be truly difficult to go through in a normal and relaxed manner.

All the best, and thanks once again for your interesting and useful comment!

Doris James MizBejabbers from Beautiful South on May 31, 2013:

Sounds like you have found a very helpful method of coping with PTSD. Both Mr. B and I have been diagnosed with PTSD, his is military connected and mine is from an abusive first marriage and my sister’s violent suicide. He went through inpatient therapy at the VA, followed by our being in couples’ therapy there, so we were both fortunate to get treatment, but this was in 1999 before the Gulf wars overwhelmed the VA with PTSD veteran patients.

Your four elements really interested me. I am trained in self-hypnosis and meditation techniques, and have used all four of them myself. What I found was that I could build back the emotional and the self-esteem, but the chemical imbalance affected my nerves. Regardless of how I felt about myself emotionally, my nerves felt raw and irritated. I am taking medication for that and now do not jump at every little noise or at perceived dangers. For instance, I used to have the irrational reaction every time traffic in lanes driving toward me changed lanes – I just knew they were going to cross the center line and hit me.

As for as CR Rookwood’s comment about women, I agree. I think I was fortunate to be included in the VA therapy, and I don’t know if I would have ever been diagnosed and treated without it. Voted you up and useful.

Lucy (author) on May 31, 2013:

Thank you! I'm glad you found it useful. All the best.

Pamela Hutson from Moonlight Maine on May 31, 2013:

Fantastic article and so thorough! Thank you! PTSD in women doesn't seem to receive the same attention that PTSD in veterans does, but neither veterans nor women get all the help needed. It's so tough and so expensive. After many years, mine is under control and I have a good life, but you are so right, it's hard, and these are things anyone can do to facilitate their own healing. Thanks again. Thumbs up. :)

Margaret Perrottet from San Antonio, FL on May 31, 2013:

What a wonderful article - you've really done a great and thorough job in detailing the steps one can take for self help. Voted up, useful, interesting and sharing - good job!

Lucy (author) on May 22, 2013:

Thank you, Jules!

Jules on May 21, 2013:

thank you, very interesting and useful blog post.

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