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Patient Care

EMDR: Is the Answer to PTSD in the Eyes?

We all know stress is a serious problem among first responders. Living with untreated disorders PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) can lead to career burnout, drug and alcohol abuse, divorce, and suicide risk.

Alleviating PTSD is top priority for trauma specialist Tania Glenn, president of Tania Glenn and Associates (TGA), a clinical practice in central Texas. Glenn has treated first responders and veterans with PTSD over the past 27 years.

As described in the 46-minute documentary First Responder Resilience: Smashing the Stigma, Glenn has apparently found an effective way to treat PTSD. Using a trauma-processing technique called eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy (EMDR), she works to help PTSD sufferers emotionally process the experiences they’ve gone through so they can move forward with their lives.

Psychology Today calls EMDR “controversial” because it’s not clear how it works but notes some studies have shown it beneficial for treating certain mental-health conditions. 

Based on her patients’ therapeutic experiences, Glenn is a believer. “I’ve seen a lot of great documentaries that simply explore the pain and suffering first responders experience when living with PTSD,” she says, “but they never seem to offer any answers or hope. This is where Smashing the Stigma is different: The first responders in the documentary have undergone EMDR therapy and had positive life-changing results.”                                       

‘It Pulled Him In Before He Could Pull the Trigger’

Smashing the Stigma opens with an actual 9-1-1 call from a home where a parcel bomb has exploded, with the dispatcher and victims’ mother working to get aid to the scene. Unfortunately there’s another possible mail bomb in the house, so EMS has to wait outside until the bomb squad arrives while the two patients inside decline.

This is just one tragedy faced by the first responders and family members interviewed in Smashing the Stigma, each of whom has been afflicted with PTSD due to the tragedies they’ve encountered on the job. All these professionals are Glenn’s patients.

The interviewees include paramedic Bob Luddy. He encountered the body of a drowned teenager who tied a weighted, holed bucket to his body and threw it in the water. The victim’s apparent plan was to shoot himself before he was dragged down into the water by the bucket, but “it pulled him in before he could pull the trigger,” Luddy said in the film.

Looking at the dead boy afterward, “The thing that struck me most was this deep purplish-blue color to his face, from the lividity and water temperature,” Luddy continued. “A look of just horror was frozen on his face. He died alone, under water, struggling to get the knot untied from his waist. He tried to change his mind, but it was too late.”

“Unzipping the body bag and seeing that look of horror and that color just seared itself into my brain.”

Hope for PTSD Patients

Having told Luddy’s story and others, Smashing the Stigma delves into EMDR therapy and how it can help PTSD sufferers process what happened to them.

According to Glenn, PTSD is fundamentally a failure of the brain to process traumatic experiences. In normal situations fresh information stored in the brain’s frontal lobe is processed and then stored into memory during REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. In doing this the person lets go of the immediacy of the memory being processed, allowing them to move on emotionally and deal with new situations as they arise.

With PTSD this doesn’t happen. The trauma remains vividly stuck in the frontal lobe, to be relived again and again. This is why PTSD can be so debilitating: It is akin to be terrified indefinitely.

Like pushing a stalled car with a manual transmission to jump the engine into life, EMDR requires the patient to move their eyes back and forth rapidly while focusing on the traumatic thoughts and describing them to their therapist. “The rapid eye movement is what triggers the frontal lobe to open up the synapses and start to move the traumatic thoughts into memory,” says Glenn. “We’re taking a process you would naturally normally do and directing it in a fashion that gets the brain to open and handle the trauma.”

Glenn was skeptical about EMDR when she first heard about it. But the progress her PTSD patients have made in using it has changed her mind. “The brain has an uncanny ability to connect the dots on all the things it needs to do to push those traumas through,” she says.

The testimonies recorded in Smashing the Stigma echo this confidence. Take Luddy: Having undergone EMDR therapy at Glenn’s office, he drove home, fell into a deep sleep, and woke up “feeling great. No dreams. I didn’t walk up feeling panicked or sweating or anything like that,” Luddy said. “I just woke up.”

This is not to say that he the other first responders who’ve undergone EMDR are “cured.” They’re not, in the sense that the horrors that spurred their PTSD remain in their minds today and will stay there for the rest of their lives. But EMDR has allowed their brains to finally pull the trauma into memory, easing the associated emotional stress over time.

James Careless is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to EMS World.


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