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Understanding EMDR Therapy's Impact in Healing Medical Trauma

We often associate emotional trauma with major disasters or accidents, however, it can also emerge in response to challenging or traumatic experiences in various settings. When a person develops emotional trauma from an experience in a medical setting, it is referred to as medical trauma. 

Medical trauma may arise following a challenging hospitalization, an intensive care unit stay,  a frightening treatment regimen, or upon receiving a terminal diagnosis. The impact of medical trauma on emotional functioning mirrors that of trauma from other settings. Likewise, EMDR therapy proves equally effective in treating medical trauma as it does trauma from alternative contexts.

By addressing and resolving the emotional weight of past medical incidents, EMDR enables individuals to approach future medical care with greater resilience and emotional ease.

A doctor using a stethoscope on a woman's chest.

What is Medical Trauma?

Medical trauma refers to emotional trauma and wounding that develops in a person in response to a traumatic experience that occurred while receiving medical care. In some cases, a lengthy and or ambiguous diagnostic process can also cause medical trauma.

Some examples of medical trauma include:

  • NICU/PICU/ICU hospitalization

  • Diagnosis chronic or terminal illness

  • Diagnosis and treatment of chronic or terminal illness of your child

  • Baby born with complex medical needs or congenital disorder

  • Accidents that cause bodily harm or require rehabilitation

PTSD Hospitalization Statistics

Sometimes experiencing medical trauma leads to the development of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Below are statistics regarding the prevalence rates of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) following Intensive Care Unit Hospitalization:

  • Intensive Care Unit (ICU) - 20-30% of patients

  • Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) - 20-30 % of parents

  • Pediatric Intensive Care Unit(PICU) - 15-20% of parents

  • Pediatric Intensive Care Unit(PICU) 10-30% of children

See the footnotes of the blog for sources.

What is EMDR Therapy? 

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocess therapy, often shortened to EMDR therapy, is an evidence-based trauma treatment modality, it is effective at treating emotional trauma (acute stress disorder and PTSD), anxiety, depression, traumatic grief, and many other mental health issues. 

This modality facilitates reprocessing the traumatic event in a way that facilitates healing from the emotional trauma. EMDR therapy is a structured therapy that uses the body’s innate healing ability to heal parts of the brain that are altered by emotional trauma and wounding. Developed and initial research efficacy for treating traditional PTSD stemming from accidents or warzones, EMDR therapy is just as effective at treating medical trauma.

EMDR graphic in blue, orange, pink, and green.

How EMDR Therapy Can Address and Treat Medical Trauma

EMDR therapy is used to treat medical trauma in the same way it is used to treat other types of emotional trauma. The protocol starts with history taking which involves the therapist helping you identify the most impactful parts of the experience. Early sessions also incorporate teaching coping and resourcing skills to help you learn how to manage traumatic distress.

Active reprocessing in EMDR therapy focuses on processing the distressing memories so the memories no longer evoke a stress response and facilitate the memories being stored in long term memory.

Medical trauma can be especially challenging to cope with, because it can be difficult to avoid triggers, especially when you have to return to the medical setting for ongoing care. EMDR can have a significant impact on a person’s ability to mitigate the continuous stress associated with ongoing medical care after having a traumatic medical experience. 

Patients dealing with chronic illnesses or repetitive medical interventions often face heightened anxiety or trauma-related symptoms returning to the setting where they developed medical trauma. EMDR therapy offers tools to make medical settings less triggering as to reduce stress and anxiety associated with future healthcare needs.

A blonde woman looking at someone's finger.

EMDR Therapy at Noticing Growth

At Noticing Growth, we specialize in treating medical trauma with EMDR therapy. As EMDR therapists with a background in medical social work we understand many of the nuances related to medical trauma. At Noticing Growth EMDR therapy is provided either in-person or virtually during a regular 50-53 minute long session. Our process is condensed into three steps:

  1. Preparation, History, Identification of Emotional Wounds

  2. Reprocessing Phase

  3. Bilateral Stimulation via Digital Platform

Our job as the clinician is to support and nurture you during EMDR therapy reprocessing so you are able to notice, and heal through the process. Call 916-426-9340 or email to get started with EMDR therapy for medical trauma.

Sources (1: ZATZICK, D., RIVARA, F., NATHENS, A., JURKOVICH, G., WANG, J., FAN, M., . . . MACKENZIE, E. (2007). A nationwide US study of post-traumatic stress after hospitalization for physical injury. Psychological Medicine, 37(10), 1469-1480. doi:10.1017/S0033291707000943 2: Sareen, J., Olafson, K., Kredentser, M. S., Bienvenu, O. J., Blouw, M., Bolton, J. M., Logsetty, S., Chateau, D., Nie, Y., Bernstein, C. N., Afifi, T. O., Stein, M. B., Leslie, W. D., Katz, L. Y., Mota, N., El-Gabalawy, R., Sweatman, S., & Marrie, R. A. (2020, May 11). The 5-year incidence of mental disorders in a population-based ICU survivor cohort. Latest TOC RSS. Retrieved January 21, 2023, 3: Lefkowitz, D.S., Baxt, C. & Evans, J.R. Prevalence and Correlates of Posttraumatic Stress and Postpartum Depression in Parents of Infants in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU). J Clin Psychol Med Settings 17, 230–237 (2010) 4: Schecter R, Pham T, Hua A, et al. Prevalence and Longevity of PTSD Symptoms Among Parents of NICU Infants Analyzed Across Gestational Age Categories. Clinical Pediatrics. 2020;59(2):163-169. doi:10.1177/0009922819892046 5: Madelon B. Bronner, Niels Peek, Hennie Knoester, Albert P. Bos, Bob F. Last, Martha A. Grootenhuis, Course and Predictors of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder in Parents after Pediatric Intensive Care Treatment of their Child, Journal of Pediatric Psychology, Volume 35, Issue 9, October 2010, Pages 966–974, 6: Balluffi, Andrew LSW; Kassam-Adams, Nancy PhD; Kazak, Anne PhD; Tucker, Michelle BSN; Dominguez, Troy MD; Helfaer, Mark MD. Traumatic stress in parents of children admitted to the pediatric intensive care unit. Pediatric Critical Care Medicine 5(6):p 547-553, November 2004. | DOI: 10.1097/01.PCC.0000137354.19807.44 7: Rees, G., Gledhill, J., Garralda, M.E. et al. Psychiatric outcome following paediatric intensive care unit (PICU) admission: a cohort study. Intensive Care Med 30, 1607–1614 (2004).

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