This is a great question, and one that I get frequently.
In the past, the way therapists were taught to deal with PTSD is to talk about it. They had the patient talk again and again and again about what happened, and over time the person would become desensitized and have more tolerance for their symptoms, and gradually reclaim their life.
This can be an effective way to go, but this treatment also has a high dropout rate because it’s so emotionally difficult to bear. What if you just don’t know if you can bear to talk about what happened? Also, according to the world-renowned psychiatrist Bessel Van Der Kolk, trauma affects the brain so deeply that talking alone will not completely resolve it.
One way to define PTSD is as a phobia of memory. Think about it, doesn’t it seem to fit? You tend to not want to think about what happened and try to push it out of your mind, but those memories and images keep coming back.
The reason it sticks is because traumatic memories are stored differently in the brain than regular ones, and get “stuck” without being processed the way we do with the rest of our experiences. This is one reason folks with PTSD are more likely to have disturbing dreams; that’s our brain trying to process what happened.
One of the primary ways that I treat PTSD is with EMDR, which can directly process memory without having you talk about it. The patient is taught techniques that help a person to relax and calm themselves in everyday life, and in session the traumatic memories get desensitized and reprocessed without having to talk about it.
This is not a magic solution, it’s one of the most scientifically validated of all approaches. Traumatic events in our lives can stay with us and affect the quality of our lives. When you are ready to get some help with leaving the past in the past, consider a clinician trained in EMDR therapy. For those seeking a detailed description of the treatment, please click here. You may also want to check out Francine Shapiro’s book Getting Past Your Past, which is something I’d recommend to anyone.