• Sara Speed, LMHC

First Responder 911: How EMDR Can Help Those Who Help Us



When many of us think of first responders, we envision the firefighter in full bunker gear bravely running into the burning building. Or the police officer facing off with the armed assailant threatening innocent lives.


Though this image certainly rings true, what we do not tend to think of is that firefighter dragging himself across the threshold of his own home after a 24-hour shift, bedraggled and beaten down by the pain and misfortune of others. Or the police officer who is too emotionally exhausted to look at his child’s science project, because he has been functioning at the arousal level of a deer in the woods for the past ten years.


Doing a job with one of the highest risk levels out there takes its toll. And make no mistake, being revered as the strongest and the bravest, being regarded as a real-life hero, well... it comes at a cost.


When reading the research on mental health in the first responder community it quickly becomes apparent what that cost is. Rates of depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and substance abuse are exponentially higher amongst first responders when compared to the general public. According to a report from the Ruderman Family Foundation in 2017, more firefighters and police officers die by suicide each year than in the line of duty. This is likely a vast under-representation. Additionally, the Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance (FBHA) states that only 40%-45% of firefighter suicides are even reported.


Just because they have taken on a job that most of us can only pretend to be as little children does not mean they are actually invincible. Just because we perceive them as heroes do not mean that their minds or bodies are immune to the effects of sleep deprivation, prolonged exposure to high stress, and trauma each and every day. Our first responders are humans. They are our partners, friends, sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, and children. And they need our help.


How EMDR Helps First Responders:


There is one treatment approach endorsed by the World Health Organization, the American Psychological Association, the US Department of Veteran Affairs, and many more high-level organizations as an effective treatment for trauma and its associated struggles: EMDR.


EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. This incredible method was developed in the late 1980s by Dr. Francine Shapiro who discovered the connection between eye movement and the processing of distressing events. Though this may sound a bit “out there” it really comes as no surprise as the scientific community has known for decades that thought consolidation and adaptive processing typically occurs most actively during our deep sleep or REM stage which stands for, you guessed it… rapid eye movement!


Don’t get too caught up on this though, as we have now discovered that it’s the bilateral stimulation (alternating left-right stimuli) that sparks up the brain’s natural healing capacity. So now many therapists institute other forms of bilateral stimulation besides eye movements like the use of hand-held vibrations (tappers) or headphones with alternating tones.


So, how does EMDR work?


When traumatic events occur, the brain can become stuck in the “fight or flight” reaction. Trapped along with that event are all the memories associated with it including sensory (the smell of the smoke, the sound of the gunshots, the color of the sky that day); thoughts (“I might not make it out of this,” or “That mother is never going to see her child again,” or “Did I do enough?”); and emotions (anger, fear, and pain).


The bilateral stimulation utilized in EMDR, along with other components guided by your specially trained EMDR therapist awakens the brain’s natural healing process allowing you to make sense of and move past your trauma.


EMDR is NOT brainwashing. EMDR will not erase your memory or trick your mind. We all have the capacity to heal naturally within us. Just think about how miraculous it is that a cut on your arm will heal over in time, all by itself. The brain has this power too! But what trauma does is it blocks this ability and gets the brain stuck in a loop of pain, self-doubt, despair, and impending doom.


Because of the heightened level of awareness that first responders are forced to operate under and the repeated exposure to both their own trauma and vicarious trauma of those they serve, they can be some of the most ideal clients for the EMDR intervention.


Benefits of EMDR for First Responders:


  • EMDR does not require you to talk in detail about your traumatic event. As a matter of fact, the area of the brain that EMDR accesses does speak the language of words, details, facts, or descriptions. Often during the processing portion of EMDR clients are asked to speak as minimally as possible, just enough to let your therapist know where they are at.

  • EMDR does not require homework in between sessions. Many therapeutic techniques request writing exercises, practicing new things, or completing activities outside of the office. Not to say that these are not effective, because they ARE, but we know that you are busy out there keeping us safe and your time is spread thin as it is.

  • EMDR can often be completed in fewer sessions than many traditional talk therapy approaches. Your trauma has taken up enough of your precious time. Though self-care is a marathon and not a sprint, we want you to get back to being the best version of yourself as quickly as possible.


For more information on the science behind EMDR or what to expect in your EMDR journey please visit the Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing International Association website at www.emdria.org.

First Responders have dedicated their entire life to taking care of and protecting us. Now it’s our time to take care of them. If you or someone you know could benefit from First Responder Counseling with an EMDR trained therapist, contact Bayview Therapy at 954-391-5305 to schedule a complimentary consultation to see how our Certified First Responder Counselors and EMDR trained therapists can help! We have offices in Coral Springs and Fort Lauderdale, Florida.


***This article was written by Sara Speed, LMHC who is a certified First Responder counselor providing therapy and EMDR for first responders and their partners in Coral Springs, Florida. She is also married to a FireFighter, which is another reason she is so passionate about helping first responders heal, overcome struggles, and build their resilience.

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