Experiencing trauma can fundamentally change a person’s life. Tragedy is unpredictable and can creep up in the form of natural disasters, a family member passing away, or living in an environment that fosters prolonged emotional stress. Unfortunately, for many students at Woodward Academy, traumatic experiences have plagued their life at far too early of an age. Many live with post-traumatic stress (PTSD) symptoms from living in neighborhoods with rampant community violence (i.e. gang neighborhoods), and are asked to function as if nothing has ever happened.
It takes a long time to heal from severe emotional pain. If not addressed, youth who experience trauma early in life are at a much higher risk of having problems in adulthood, such as anxiety disorders, drug abuse, and prolonged criminal behaviors. Over the past several years, the clinical team at Woodward Academy has placed a greater emphasis on trauma therapy, including the use of Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy.
Developed in the 1980’s, EMDR therapy has grown significantly in the past three decades. It is recognized by the American Psychiatric Association, the World Health Organization, and the Department of Defense, and has been researched thoroughly to be an effective form of treatment for trauma. Clinical Therapist Sam Chambers, has now brought it to Woodward Academy.
“Students usually get big eyes when they think of what trauma actually is. But when we get down to it, and ask ‘what have you been through?’ it’s clear that they have been through a lot of stuff.” EMDR therapy is a part of a larger focus on trauma within the clinical department. Students begin the process in small trauma groups. For many students, that is all they need. In some of those early sessions, Chambers compares the need to heal the emotional wounds to the physical ones that bleed. With fake blood and bandage wraps, the group simulates how external wounds are taken care of. She tells the group, “usually we ignore that stuff on the inside, the stuff we don’t see. It’s hard to know how to heal, or take care of that wound. We’re going to find ways to start healing that invisible stuff. It’s going to be painful at times. Painful because we’ve got to clean out the wounds.”
EMDR uses bilateral stimulation to help the mind “pair more positive beliefs about themselves with those dysfunctional and traumatic memories from the past.” The transition happens during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep when our bodies process what has happened throughout the day. The meaning of these painful and traumatic events change on an emotional level, and are replaced with feelings of empowerment. This transition breaks the cycle of these traumatic wounds and allows true healing to begin.
With all therapeutic sessions, each scenario is different. Some students excel with only a few sessions, while others require more time. EMDR is set up in 8 phases, each of which is flexible to the clinician’s desires. At the end of these sessions, the emphasis turns to the future. “EMDR allows students to take control. When they bring up that memory, it doesn’t trigger them like it used to.” Chambers goes on to say that “part of trauma is that you’re constantly being retraumatized when you think of those triggers, or reminders that you’re faced with all the time. With that distress gone, [our students are] functioning better in their daily lives because those things don’t have the same impact that they used to.” Equipped with future templates of how to handle stressful and traumatic events, our students are prepared for a future that is full of uncertainty.
Sam Chambers, MS, LMHC, CCTP is a licensed mental health counselor, specializing in trauma focused treatment. While at Woodward Academy, she has utilized multiple approaches in helping students address the impact of trauma, most recently through the application of EMDR therapy and its use of reprocessing memories with bilateral stimulation. Sam completed formal training in EMDR’s
protocols, as well as supervision with a certified provider in 2014, and is now working towards certification. GO KNIGHTS!