EMDR & Perinatal Mental Health
Written by Shannon Kane, MSW, RSW
“Trauma is perhaps the most avoided, ignored, belittled, denied, misunderstood, and untreated cause of human suffering.” -Peter Levine
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy is gaining popularity in the perinatal world. You may have read about it online if you have researched trauma, birth trauma or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.The big question is: What is EMDR? What symptoms define trauma and how can EMDR be used for folks who are struggling with trauma related to parenthood, fertility, historical trauma, loss, or birth?
Symptoms of TRAUMA might include:
- Difficulty bonding to your baby
- Sleep disturbances
- Not able to remember parts of a traumatic event
- Avoiding baby, partner, or care provider
- Feeling like ‘WHY can’t I just can’t get over this?’
- Being triggered by others’ births or pregnancies
- Struggling to enjoy parenting
- Low mood, anxiety, hypervigilance
- Finding anniversary dates difficult
- Feeling disconnected to others
- Intense shame, anger, or rage
- Suicidal feelings, thoughts or plans
- Intense worrying
- Fear of an upcoming birth
- Trouble with negative beliefs about yourself: I am in danger, I am a failure, I am helpless, I did something wrong, I am worthless, I am a bad mom/parent/dad/person
(Beck, Driscoll & Watson, 2013, Briere & Scott, 2015)
What is EMDR therapy?
EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. It has been around since the late 80’s and was developed by Francine Shapiro.You can find information on the research that supports the use of EMDR for many uses here.
EMDR has 8 phases. One of the phases uses bilateral stimulation such as eye movements, tapping or sounds to work with the troubling or disturbing memories that were not fully processed at the time of the event to desensitize the memory. Take for example, a traumatic birth experience. The birth or parts of it may be very scary, disturbing, or overwhelming to you long after the event has passed. You can use EMDR shortly after the incident, or years later; I have had clients come in to do EMDR therapy on unresolved trauma even ten years after their child’s birth.
“There is a natural, physically based mechanism in all human beings for processing and resolving disturbing or incongruent life experiences” (Knipe, 2014), But when this does not happen, some memories get stuck and are stored as if they are happening ‘right now.’ This ‘right now’ feeling is something you cannot talk yourself out of, the body, brain and the whole nervous system have stored these memories in this troubling way.
You may experience bodily sensations related to the trauma when you are reminded of it, such as the panic you felt in the hospital. You may want to avoid certain places or people because they are a reminder, such as your doctor’s office or even just driving by the hospital. You may have flashbacks of the event, disturbing dreams, or other symptoms that signal trauma. These memories can also get stored with negative beliefs such as: I am a failure. EMDR helps to address the body, negative beliefs, images, sounds and other sensations that are distressing. These symptoms are usually what prompts someone to come to therapy.
As a new parent, a pregnant person or someone struggling with fertility, these symptoms are problematic because the nervous system is perceiving a threat that isn’t there. It can greatly impact how you feel about yourself as a person or a parent, but it does not have to.
The “stuckness” in the body and mind is what EMDR helps to resolve within the context of a safe, supportive therapeutic relationship. EMDR is not a fit for everyone at every time. It is typically not an immediate ‘fix’; it can be a process. However, it is extremely effective and, for many, life changing. The process of EMDR depends on the type of trauma and the person’s history and the therapeutic relationship with your counsellor is essential in this healing process.
WHAT can EMDR help with in the perinatal period?
- BIRTH TRAUMA – Research shows between 33-45% of birthing people report their birth as traumatic (Alcorn K. L., et al., 2010 & Beck et al., 2013).
- LOSS – Loss of a parent, pregnancy, or infant loss.
- PTSD – Dormant PTSD from own childhood experiences can be triggered when you become a parent and addressing this can be beneficial for you and your relationship with your child (Knipe, 2004).
- FERTILITY – Fertility struggles impact many, and this can be considered reproductive trauma for some. EMDR can target memories of emotional losses, physical pain, and loss of dignity.
- FEARS – Some clinicians use EMDR for desensitizing phobias such as: childbirth, vomit, needles, or blood.
- BREASTFEEDING – Painful experiences, feeling a loss of dignity or helplessness.
- SEXUAL ABUSE – Past sexual assaults, or abuse that has been triggered by birth, or parenting.
- PAST MENTAL HEALTH ISSUES – Past episodes of severe postpartum depression or anxiety and some of the memories that linger may be distressing.
- HOSPITAL EXPERIENCES – Some hospital experiences, such as time in the NICU or surgeries,can lead to feelings of helplessness. Worry, distressing images, and fear are often addressed.
FINDING A THERAPIST:
As with any therapy, the relationship is key. Finding a therapist is not always easy and not every therapist will be a fit. With trauma work, you want to be sure the person you see is experienced in the area you are looking to work on. This relationship can take some time to develop, but make sure if you do NOT feel comfortable, or if it feels unsafe in any way, that you address this with your therapist or try to find someone else to work with.
EMDR is a specialized training that requires a therapist with at least a Master’s degree, EMDR training, and ongoing consultation with other EMDR therapists. Make sure the person you are seeing is a licensed therapist who is trained in EMDR.
EMDRIA is an international organization that lists therapists by area of the world and speciality. They include a category for birth trauma, and loss.
EMDRIA find a therapist (worldwide EMDR therapists)
What is EMDR? https://www.emdria.org/page/emdr_therapy
Podcast on EMDR in the perinatal period
Article on what to look for in a therapist
- Alcorn K. L., O’Donovan A., Patrick J. C., Creedy D., & Devilly G. J. A prospective longitudinal study of the prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder resulting from childbirth events. Psychological Medicine. 2010; 40(11):1849–1859.
- Beck, C., Driscoll, J., &Watson, S. 2013. Traumatic Childbirth.
- Briere, J. & Scott, C. 2015. Principles of Trauma Therapy.
- Knipe, J., 2004. EMDR Toolbox: Theory and Treatment of Complex PTSD and Dissociation.
- EMDRIA www.emdria.org