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Does Naturally Occurring EMDR-Like Phenomena in the Work Environment Increase Employment Risk for Survivors of Violent Crimes?

EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) is a controversial yet exciting therapy that assists many, including survivors of violent crimes to process their experiences so that they can move forward in their healing. The therapist deliberately stimulates left-right brain processing while facilitating an environment similar to that experienced while dreaming. It is particularly effective in treating people with post traumatic stress disorder. 

While this carefully constructed set of circumstances is beneficial in the hands of a qualified EMDR practitioner and in a safe environment, is it possible that the very factors which lead to healing in EMDR therapy present themselves unawares outside the clinical environment causing post-traumatic stress episodes? The actual triggers leading to a post traumatic stress episode vary, but perhaps upon inspection a naturally occurring commonality mimicking the EMDR phenomenon is present. 

Although eye movements are the most commonly used external stimulus employed by EMDR therapists, they also use auditory tones, tapping, or other types of tactile stimulation. Are there naturally occurring corollaries in the everyday environment which would make it difficult for a survivor of violent crime to function in their day to day duties? Are work tasks unknowingly triggering the beginnings of an EMDR session without the presence of an EMDR practitioner to facilitate the information processing? Is a post-traumatic stress response the result? Survivors of violent crimes are at high risk for employment. Does Naturally Occurring EMDR-Like Phenomena in the Work Environment Increase Employment Risk for Survivors of Violent Crimes?

Case History 1

Susan is a secretary in Christchurch, New Zealand. She is a survivor of a violent sexual assault which occurred in the Spring of 2002. Susan is struggling to maintain her job of 6 years as a secretary in a city office. On top of the cost for therapy to recover from her experience, she now faces the very real possibility of losing her job due to poor performance. Susan decided to seek career counseling in hopes that she would be able to find a solution to keep her job or find work which would not be so stressful. This is not like Susan. She has always been a very good secretary and never found it stressful before. Upon questioning, Susan identifies that since the assault, her response to certain work tasks has changed. She becomes "spacey", "upset" and feels the need to "run away" when performing the following duties:

Taking minutes

She identified a connection between these responses and the way she feels at the beginning of an EMDR session with her therapist, before the actual reprocessing facilitated by the therapist takes place. After going through the various elements in these three tasks of typing, filing and taking minutes, a commonality emerged for Susan. She felt that these tasks did free up a part of her brain that put her in an almost dream-like state because they were automatic to her - she did them without thinking. Is it possible also that the sound of the typing mimics the rhythm of the tapping used in her EMDR sessions? Or that it opens up a similar right-left brain processing connection? Does the filing task open a sequencing pathway that upsets her because as she is sequencing physical information, her brain is also sequencing her emotional experiences? These are questions that are worthy of consideration.

Based on our understanding of EMDR therapy, we tried the following techniques with Susan:

1. If filing or sequencing tasks become upsetting, 
break the task into out-of-sequence components. 
File the back 1/3, 
then the first 1/3 and 
then the middle 1/3. 
2. If typing becomes upsetting
Concentrate on typing the entire word rather than the individual letters.
Make sure your keyboard is as quiet and touch responsive as possible. 
Break up your typing with other tasks whenever you can. 
As soon as you find yourself "typing without thinking", focus back on typing whole words.
3. If taking minutes becomes upsetting
Sit outside the circle if possible.
Have a drink of water to distract you during speaking breaks.
Pretend you are in school taking notes for a lecture and draw headings and diagrams to help you stay focused and stay present.

Susan tried these tasks and found an immediate change in the emotional disruption of her work day. She also took our suggestion to move her workstation around so that no one could come up behind her without her seeing it and this also made a huge difference. In addition, Susan made a pact with herself that whenever she is at work and something in the environment seems to bring on the beginnings of a post traumatic stress response, that she would immediately excuse herself to the ladies room where she would take a few minutes to remind herself that she will be able to process these experiences in therapy with her EMDR practitioner and what she is feeling at the moment may just be her environment provoking the beginnings of an EMDR session at the wrong time, in the wrong place and without the necessary support. She places this "aborted session" on hold in her mind and is sure to tell her therapist about it as soon as possible.

Although Susan is still struggling with the experience of violence she survived, with these techniques and ongoing EMDR therapy coupled with other resources, Susan has been able to keep her job and is no longer at risk for employment.

Case History 2

Alice is a taxi driver in Christchurch, New Zealand who has left a domestic violence situation after 20 years. She sought career counseling because she no longer enjoys her work and has found her mind wandering, causing one accident. Alice is not in therapy, but upon talking with her, she related that she found she was fine in her job as long as she was just "driving around town". Where her difficulties came into play was when she had long trips taking tourists out into the country. She found the driving played on her mind and she would relive her violent episodes with her ex-husband. Is it possible that eye processing techniques used in EMDR therapy were naturally occurring for her in her work environment when driving on long trips? The following suggestions were made to Alice:

Engage the tourists in conversation. Alice had become withdrawn and did not interact much with her customers. By pretending to be a "guide" rather than a taxi driver alone, Alice would keep her mind occupied rather than having it go into a dream-like state on country roads.
Try to stick to trips in town as much as possible. It may mean passing up a fare sometimes, but the attention required to drive in Christchurch would keep her mind focused and there would be no "trees rushing by to make me remember pain".

Alice put these suggestions into action. Although she did notice an improvement, she is investigating alternative means of employment.

In both these examples, the women had experienced trauma. One had symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder and was being treated by a therapist. The other was an ordinary woman who had endured what many consider an ordinary life with the only emotional disruption occurring when she was driving in the country. Both were at risk for employment. By following suggestions based on the premise that EMDR-like phenomena existed naturally in their work environment and finding ways to cope with an "aborted EMDR session", they were able to maintain their employment. Clearly, research needs to be done to investigate the effects of naturally occurring EMDR-like phenomena in the work environment on employment risk for survivors of violent crimes.

Permission by K Tate
2003 By K Tate
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