The tragic consequences of cognitive ("talk") therapy for victims of trauma


I recently read Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes, a novel based on his horrific experiences in Vietnam in 1969. In one day alone, he lost 1/3 of his men, and destroyed four enemy machine-gun bunkers under heavy fire, while wounded. He earned the Navy Cross, the nation's second-highest honor for Marines, but he was also horribly traumatized. He dealt with PTSD for years, destroying his marriage and career, until he finally sought out trauma therapy.

However, an interview with Mr. Marlantes at the end of the novel notes that he has been in trauma therapy for 15 years. He still has trauma symptoms and is filled with guilt and pain. What on earth is his therapist doing? My clients resolve their trauma, are freed from trauma symptoms, and we say "goodbye." Why can't Mr. Marlantes? Why is he still in therapy after 15 years?

Unfortunately, as the article goes on to say, Mr. Marlantes is in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy--it's the most popular therapy in the country. But obviously it isn't helping him with his trauma much. CBT's most common way of dealing with trauma is "Prolonged Exposure," in which you describe your trauma in horrific detail, and then listen to an audio recording of this for 200 hours. Sounds more like torture than therapy, right? At best, this therapy simply dulls the pain--when it works, which is only a bit more than half the time.

In contrast, EMDR therapy, which I use, does not involve reliving traumatic events, and recognizes that you can't get to the heart through the head. Let's contrast EMDR with Mr. Marlantes's story: one early experiment with EMDR involved treating Vietnam veterans with 30+ years of PTSD--just like him. But with EMDR, there was an 85% cure rate in an average of three 90-minute sessions. That's more than a little different!

EMDR focuses not on the details of the trauma, but on how the traumatic memory has caused the client to think about themselves in a negative way--shame, flashbacks, intrusive thoughts, depression. The essence of trauma is the feeling of being trapped, and how this feeling persists after the traumatic event is over. If you choked on something 20 years ago, and it hasn't gone anywhere, you feel like you're choking on is now. Whereas Prolonged Exposure tries to use the Heimlich maneuver, EMDR washes the trauma down with a glass of cool water, and the brain's own natural healing mechanisms are activated to process the trauma in the way they weren't able to at the time.

Learn more about EMDR all over this website--all through my blog, and through the links and videos on my homepage. If you have been through a difficult life event, and it feels like it's still happening, or have memories you wish you could forget, give me a call, and we can probably change your life.