Fear resulting from psychological trauma can be extremely deep-seated. The distress, feelings of helplessness and constant flashback of traumatic events can turn one’s world upside down, causing major problems with daily activities and quality of life. It may be easy for someone to say, “Well, why can’t you just get over it?” But in reality, we need to recognise that it is much easier said than done. In order to help people move past their traumatic experiences, researchers and psychologists have worked tirelessly, creating various therapeutic methods and tweaking them to achieve the optimal recovery outcome. In regards to the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), you may be familiar with an approach known as Dialectical Behavioural Therapy. In this article, we’ll be introducing you to an alternative psychotherapy technique, also known as Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR).
Developed by Francine Shapiro in 1987, EMDR therapy is an empirically validated treatment for trauma and other negative life experiences. While it is also increasingly applied for the treatment of other mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety or panic attacks, researchers have not found EMDR to be as effective as with trauma-related conditions. As its name suggests, EMDR isn’t all about talk therapy or medications. In a different vein from cognitive behavioural therapy, EMDR doesn’t focus on altering a client’s thought patterns or behaviours. Instead, it relies on one’s own rapid, rhythmic eye movements, allowing the brain to process memories and resume its natural healing process.
What is the Basis of EMDR Therapy?
EMDR is fundamentally based on the Adaptive Information Processing (AIP) Model. A key tenet of this model is that the symptoms of PTSD are manifested due to memories that are dysfunctionally stored or not fully processed. Memories of disturbing experiences often string along negative emotions, thoughts, beliefs and even physical sensations that were associated with them at the time of occurrence. This can bring about a multitude of unpleasant symptoms that can be exceptionally detrimental to one’s mental health.
When one is exposed to stress or trauma, the body’s automatic response would be to activate its Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS). As an adaptive system, it controls our natural fight, flight or freeze instincts, which is critical in ensuring our survival. When the SNS is activated, the individual will undergo physical alterations such as increased heart and breathing rates, decreased blood flow to the digestive system and constricted blood vessels. In addition, hormone levels including those of adrenaline and cortisol will increase dramatically, causing hypervigilance. However, for someone who is under constant stress from traumatic flashbacks, the over-stimulation of the SNS will be greatly damaging to this person’s physical health. As such, EMDR therapy aims to process memories such that the experience is remembered, but the fight, flight or freeze response is eased.
At this juncture, you may be wondering how clinician-directed eye movements could possibly alleviate trauma-induced stress. EMDR therapy involves guiding the client towards reliving triggering experiences in short phases while the clinician directs his eye movements. During the process, the client will be tasked to focus on trauma-related imagery and the relevant sensations. The clinician will then simultaneously move their finger across the client’s field of view, with each phase lasting approximately 20 to 30 seconds. This will then be repeated a couple of times. At some point, other forms of rhythmic left-right stimulation (for example, listening to tones that go back and forth between the left and right sides of your head) will also be incorporated into the therapeutic process. As distressing as it sounds, the process in fact allows for the vividness and emotional triggers of the memory to be reduced over time. When the client’s attention is diverted as they recall the traumatic event, this makes the exposure to negative thoughts and memories less upsetting, hence limiting a strong psychological response. After attending several EMDR therapy sessions (depending on the individual), the impact of the traumatic event is believed to be significantly reduced.
How is EMDR Structured?
Generally speaking, EMDR takes on an eight-phase approach.
Stage 1: History Taking and Treatment Planning
For a start, the clinician will work hand-in-hand with the client to identify the traumatic experiences which require attention. Should the client have a problematic childhood, the initial stage of EMDR may focus on resolving childhood traumas before moving on to resolve adult onset stressors. Identifying targets for EMDR treatment is also crucial – this means looking further into the client’s past memories, their current emotional triggers, as well as what they hope to achieve by the end of the treatment phase.
Stage 2: Preparation
In this phase, the clinician introduces the client to a few emotion-coping strategies to ensure that the client is well able to manage their emotional distress whenever a trigger is brought up. It is important that the client is able to deal with overwhelming emotions even between EMDR sessions in daily life. The clinician may also familiarise the client with the eye movements or bilateral stimulations.
Stage 3: Assessment
The clinician will then identify and assess the specific traumatic memories that need to be tackled. This also involves analysing the associated emotions and sensations triggered by the memories.
Stages 4 to 7: Treatment Process
These intermediate stages focus on the process of desensitisation, installation, a body scan, and seeking closure. The client is asked to concentrate on the trauma-related imagery and memory while engaged in the directed eye movements or other bilateral stimulation. After each set of stimulation, the client will be asked to clear their mind and report what they feel, think, and the sensations they experience. Depending on the individual, the clinician may have the client refocus on the same memory, or move on to another. This process is repeated until the client reports no distress.
Installation is where the clinician works with the client to increase the strength of positive cognition. This means focusing on the preferred positive beliefs, rather than negative ones. For example, an individual dealing with trauma arising from childhood domestic abuse may start off with a negative belief of “I am weak and powerless”. Installation aims to change that belief into one of “I am now in control.” Of course, EMDR does not force one to believe in something that is inappropriate or unsuitable for the situation. In the example brought up, allowing the client to realise that positive belief could mean encouraging them to take on self-defence training, or other skills that can provide them with a greater sense of security and control.
A body scan is used in order to check for any residual somatic response that is linked to event-related tension or stress. Should any undesirable bodily sensations be present, the clinician will then target them specifically in subsequent sets.
Stage 8: Evaluation
The next EMDR session begins with this phase. This stage is mainly for the re-evaluation of the client’s plight. More importantly, this step is to ensure that the necessary progress is made and to review the client’s psychological state. Further review will be carried out, and the relevant changes will be made to provide the optimal treatment effect.
Although EMDR may be a relatively new technique as compared to other forms of therapy, it is nonetheless an extensively researched method proven to alleviate the stress symptoms of trauma survivors and other individuals who have had distressing life experiences. If you think that EMDR therapy is right for you, do seek help from a mental health professional.
So you are going to see a psychologist for the first time – now what should we expect? The thought of having to step into a psychologist’s room for the first time can be nerve-racking, and understandably so. Oftentimes, individuals may be apprehensive and would wonder if talking to a complete stranger is really going to help, or if opening up your innermost thoughts to a stranger was too much of a risk to take. However, rest be assured that these mental health professionals are well-versed in psychotherapy methods to help you manage your issues as best as possible, and will work closely with you at a comfortable pace. Just like in the treatment of physical illnesses by physicians, patient privacy and confidentiality are also primary obligations for psychologists. In this article, we hope to give you a clearer idea of what you can expect from your visit to a psychologist, especially if it is your first session.
First things first, it is important to understand that psychotherapy isn’t merely a one-off session. While the duration of treatment may vary from one person to another, the American Psychological Association (APA) reports that “recent research indicates that on average 15 to 20 sessions are required for 50 percent of patients to recover as indicated by self-reported symptom measures.” The type and duration of treatment also heavily depend on the nature and severity of each client’s conditions, and it would simply be unfair to make an overgeneralised statement. Regardless, it would be beneficial to go in with an open mind, and to have an honest conversation with your psychologist. It really helps to trust that the process works, while acknowledging that it takes time.
Meeting the psychologist
At the beginning, the first few sessions would aim to help one identify the most pertinent issue that needs to be dealt with. The psychologist will talk through with you gathering some information on your life history, your family’s mental health history, the problems you are dealing with, and analyse those details – no matter how insignificant they may seem at first – that could have possibly led to emotional distress or coping difficulties. For the psychologist, being able to get a good grasp of the situation and seeing the big picture is vital for formulating the treatment plan and treatment process, as it will help to determine the type of psychotherapy that is best suited for you. The psychologist is trained to listen and analyse your conditions in order to help you with your recovery. As such, it is equally important that you don’t hold yourself back from being fully honest with your psychologist. To a large extent, the patient’s participation in the therapy is an important determinant of the success of the outcome.
While we fully understand that it can be unnerving, these mental health professionals are trained to help you work through the challenges you face, and the therapy room is very much a safe, non-judgemental space. Goal-setting is one of the key aspects of psychotherapy, and it is exceptionally important to set goals from the start that you can use to track your progress. You may start by identifying personally meaningful broad motives, hopes and dreams – having a clear direction in mind will better steer future sessions towards alleviating symptoms of distress and tackling the root cause of one’s concerns. Don’t worry if you feel the need to change your goals or take a different approach halfway through the treatment process. Psychotherapy is a dynamic process after all, and increased self-discovery along the way can certainly give you a better sense of what needs to be changed.
Different approaches to psychotherapy
There are several approaches to psychotherapy that can be implemented in the following sessions. Not strictly limited to one or the other, psychologists may make use of psychoanalysis and psychodynamic therapies, cognitive-behavioural, interpersonal, and other types of talk therapy. They can help you focus on changing problematic behaviours, feelings, and thoughts to build on healthy habits, or teach you emotion-coping strategies to cope with your symptoms. Forms of treatment like cognitive-behavioural therapy also aim to help individuals recognise negative thought and behaviour patterns, thereby working towards a positive change. Each session is essentially a problem-solving session. By allowing yourself to talk to your psychologist about your most difficult moments, your feelings and the change you want to observe, the psychologist is then able to make use of his/her expertise to assist you. Many mental health professionals don’t limit their treatment to any one approach. Instead, they blend elements from different approaches and tailor their treatment according to each patient’s needs.
To make the most of the treatment process, “homework” may sometimes be assigned as between-session tasks to clients as part of your treatment. A variety of homework assignments exist – sometimes in the form of practising new skills, habits, and other coping mechanisms, or someone who is dealing with complicated emotions could be asked to record your negative thoughts in nightly journal entries. When you return for your next session, the psychologist would then check in on your progress, and address any issues that may have arisen while you were completing your tasks. For some clients the benefits of therapy can be achieved in a few sessions, while for other clients they might need more to improve. Empirical evidence supports the benefits of homework in promoting positive symptom change and increasing patient functioning, that is, the quality of a client’s participation in therapy through active application of what they learn will lead to improvements in their conditions.
Was the psychologist right for you?
Often during the conversation with the psychotherapist, or after the session, you may feel a sense of relief, elation, or anxiety and exhaustion. However you feel, it is important to take note of those feelings. Did the psychologist put you at ease? Did he/she listen to you carefully and demonstrate compassion? Did he/she develop a plan to guide you with your goals and show expertise and confidence in working with issues that you have? For the treatment to be effective, you need to be able to ‘click’ with the psychologist, that is you are able to build trust and a strong connection with your psychologist.
To end off, the first session with a psychologist is understandably a bit intimidating and overwhelming, but the first step in the journey to recovery is a critical step to regain your mental wellbeing.
For many individuals, therapy is a rather intense and personal topic, and it could have taken them a lot of courage to finally seek the help that they need. Keeping this in mind, it is exceptionally crucial that one finds the right therapist, for there’s a pre-existing implicit clinical belief that the level of treatment effectiveness is greatly dependent on the therapist-client fit. Of course, every client would love to be able to – ideally – find that one therapist whom they can fully open up to from the very beginning, but in reality, that may not be the case. At times, it is necessary to assess your relationship with your therapist and evaluate if there’s the good rapport you need for your sessions to be a success. Ultimately, it boils down to whether you feel a steady, reliable and safe connection with the therapist, and whether you are making the progress you hope for.
To give you some background, studies over the years have shown that the more similar the therapist and the client, the higher the rate of recovery. As an example, an assessment instrument entitled the “Structural Profile Inventory(SPI)”, which measures seven “independent yet interactive” variables (behaviours, affects, sensory imagery, cognition, interpersonal, drugs/biological factors or BASIC-ID), showed that client-therapist similarity on the SPI predicted a better psychotherapy outcome for the client as measured by differences pre- and post-treatment on the Brief Symptom Inventory. Moreover, the demographic similarity between therapist and client facilitates positive perceptions of the relationship in the beginning stages of treatment, enhances commitment to remaining in treatment, and at times can accelerate the amount of improvement experienced by clients. More precisely, it can be said that age, ethnicity, and gender similarity have been associated with positive client perceptions of the treatment relationship. With gender and cultural similarities appearing the most strongly preferred among clients, these domains generally enhance clients’ perceptions of their therapists’ level of understanding and empathy, and as a result, sessions are judged to be more advantageous and worthwhile. However, besides these, there are also other means to assess your “fit” with your therapist, and we’re here to discuss just that.
First and foremost, consider if you are seeking help in the right place. Does the therapist you are looking at specialise in the area you are seeking help for? Before we can even touch on the topic of interpersonal therapist-client fit, it is important for you to take the time to do some research on various therapists’ profiles – in other words, to sift through and read up on their respective areas of expertise. Typically, therapists would have their area(s) of specialisation up on their online profile directories. It would be clearly indicated if they specialise in areas such as substance abuse, family therapy, or even anger management. It goes without saying that, for example, it would be inappropriate to consult a psychologist who specialises in child psychology when you’re clearly looking for someone who can help you with your substance-use addiction. With that said, it is to no one’s benefit for you to rush into therapy blindly.
Once you have chosen the potential therapist that you are most likely to want to have see you through your road to recovery, another essential question you should ask yourself is whether you are comfortable with their suggested mode of therapy. During consultations, you will have the opportunity to enquire about their recommended techniques or treatment methods that will be explored during your subsequent sessions. If you are uncomfortable with any particular process, giving honest feedback and exploring other methods is always an option. However, at any point, you also have the right to seek other therapists who may be able to help you in other ways that don’t put you in a tight spot. After all, therapy is all about having a safe and comfortable space for you to sort out your difficulties.
When assessing your interpersonal connection with your therapist, make sure to trust your gut. This way, you’ll also be able to track your progress better and to seek alternative help if required. Some questions you can ask yourself are:
Am I satisfied with the current balance of talking and listening with my therapist?
Is my overall therapy experience safe, warm, and validating?
Am I fully assured that I’m in a non-judgemental space where I can be fully honest?
How much has the therapist helped me to gain greater insight into my own behaviour and thoughts so far?
Am I becoming more capable of coping (independently) with stressful or triggering situations over time?
Am I noticing more positive changes in myself, as compared to when I first started therapy?
As mentioned, a major deciding factor should also be on whether you find yourself noticing positive changes in your thought cycles and behaviour after a couple of sessions. At the end of the day, therapy should be about working towards achieving your desired outcome, and should definitely not be limited to weekly venting sessions. Although venting and letting out hard feelings can provide temporary relief, it fosters a client’s dependence on the therapist over time and further reinforces the client’s problems. Therapy should instead help you to feel more confident that you’ve developed the relevant skill sets in order to cope with whatever emotional challenges that brought you to seek therapy in the first place.
Naturally, there’s no guarantee that we will find chemistry with the first therapist we meet. The chemistry between people varies, and sometimes it’s just not possible for us to force it. Thus, it is important to remember that a lack of fit between therapist and client is no one’s fault. However, remember that the ball is in our court, and it is within our control to start looking in the right place for the sake of our own well-being.
1 Herman, S.M. (1998). The relationship between therapist-client modality similarity and psychotherapy outcome. Journal of Psychotherapy Practice and Research, 1998 Winter; 7(1): 56-64.
2 Luborksky, L., Crits-Christoph, P., Alexander, L., Margolis, M., & Cohen, M. (1983). Two Helping alliance methods for predicting outcomes of psychotherapy: A counting signs vs. a global rating method. Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 171, 480-491.
3 Jones, E. E., (1978). Effects of race on psychotherapy process and outcome: An exploratory investigation. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice, 15, 226-236.
4 Blase, J. J. (1979). A study of the effects of sec of the client and sex of the therapist on clients’ satisfaction with psychotherapy. Dissertation Abstracts International, 39, 6107B-6108B.
Beutler, L.E., Clarkin, J., Crago, M. and Bergan, J., 1991. Client-therapist matching. Pergamon general psychology series, 162, pp.699-716. (Accessed 30/08/2020)
If you’ve been pottering around the Promises Healthcare’s ‘Our Team’ page, and are new to the world of mental health in that you’re considering making the leap to seeking help from a mental health professional, it’s our hope that this casual guide to demystifying the titles, designations and dizzying abbreviations that adorn each profile will point you in the right direction.
For starters, there’s one thing that each of our mental health professionals have in common. They all possess at minimum a Master’s level certification in their discipline, so you can be assured of all their competencies.
As we’ve shared in a previous article, a psychiatrist is at their core a medical doctor, which certifies them to prescribe neuropharmacological support – i.e., medication.
But of course, psychiatrists more often than not do indeed possess relevant counselling and psychotherapy certifications, because being well-versed in the craft of patient care in the mental health sector does help them delve deeper into the minds and psyches of their clients, and assist them in skilfully and empathetically overcoming boundaries that some clients may consciously or unconsciously put up that stymie the therapeutic process.
Prescribing the most effective neuropharmacological support is buttressed by the psychiatrist’s skill in interpersonal communication, both verbal and non-verbal. Psychiatrists often describe themselves as observers, but it goes without saying that navigating these one-on-one interactions requires input from their side of the desk. While you might think that psychiatrists have reached the peak of the career trajectory of a mental health professional, keep in mind that by no means should you think of a psychiatrist as the fount of all mental health knowledge. Think of the ‘helping’ professions encompassed in the form of a large tree, rooted in a common desire to help people in need and supported by a trunk of science and evidence based knowledge , from which grows different branches representing the many ways in which mental health professionals can help someone in need – certain disciplines are applied more rigorously in helping certain conditions or situations. This is why Promises is described on our page as a multidisciplinary team of mental health professionals. Your treatment plan is provided by our team, and under the shade of our tree, you will be prompted to reach for certain branches – but at the end of the day, it is your choice to pick the leaves which seem most lush to you.
Psychologists differ from psychiatrists in one key authority. They are not medical doctors, and therefore cannot prescribe you medication. You’ll notice that our stable comprises a good number of clinical psychologists – so, what exactly are they, and how can they help you? Clinical psychologists possess doctorate degrees in psychology, and are imbued with the ability to cater to clients who suffer from any number of the discombobulating disarray of mental health conditions which sadly, are still negatively stigmatised in society. Think schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression, and their ilk. A clinical psychologist can make a diagnosis for you, if you think you are suffering from a mental health condition. Using the tools in their arsenals which they are trained in, such as psychometric testing, intelligence testing, personality testing, and much more, their diagnoses are firmly rooted in evidence based science. You could then make the logical conclusion that if they deem your condition treatable with medication, they would refer you to a psychiatrist. There’s a lot of symbiosis going on in our clinic!
The difference between Counsellors & Psychotherapists
We’ll deal with counsellors and psychotherapists next, because the two fields are very much intertwined, aligned in some facets, while possessing in granular detail key differences. Counselling and psychotherapy are both broadly concerned with betterment of clients in need, and there is significant overlap in the goals of either mode of therapy. Now, on to the differences, which will help you better distinguish which leaf you’d like to choose. First, there is a temporal difference between the two in both the length of treatment and how far back into your life each mode of therapy delves into in order to solve your current issue.
Counselling, on one hand, tends to favour clients who are more self aware and sensitive to their emotions and thought processes, and need a helping hand in unpacking a recent difficulty or life altering experience that they wish to resolve. This is rather unlike psychotherapy, rooted in a humanistic tradition – some may refer to it as height psychology, a term which gained currency during the time of Abraham Maslow and his espousement of self-actualisation. Psychotherapy, in this sense, takes a long, lingering look at a person’s past, life changing experiences, deep seated traumas and neuroses, or any relevant factors – all to help a client gain mastery of self (self awareness) and challenge them to enact the necessary life changes that lead to self improvement. You might well think of counsellors more as “advisors”, and psychotherapists as the “life guides”. Of course, detract nothing from both disciplines – their practitioners chose their specialities precisely because they fit into their world-views and probably, because they thought that they were good at it!
How do you choose?
Of course, given the array of therapeutic modalities and mental health professionals, we understand that choosing the right leaves can be a bewildering experience. That’s why we feel it’s best that you browse the profiles of our therapists, read their biographies and see which of them you feel most comfortable seeing. In the near future, Promises Healthcare intends to refine and streamline your selection process by having a list of issues or conditions that you are having problem(s) with – your input will then guide you to the mental health professional in our team that is best equipped to deal with your issues. For now, take a deep breath, sit back, read, absorb, think with clarity about what you want to deal with, and pick one to make an appointment with. Choosing the right therapist isn’t a one hit wonder – it takes time and patience, but rest assured that we’ll do our best to help you in that regard.