Do men really suffer from trauma? Men’s trauma issues have historically been solely associated with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) attributed to combat. However, men’s trauma and PTSD issues are not so limited. For too long men’s trauma has been overlooked or misdiagnosed by those in the helping professions. Chronic substance abuse, aggression, fear, detachment, dissociation and anti-social traits are characteristic of trauma. Gender and cultural biases about men not only interfere in identifying trauma in men, but also are a barrier for men seeking substance abuse treatment. After all, men are tough, strong and don’t cry, right?
The result of this misidentification is chronic recidivism in addiction, on-going family suffering and countless lives that have been destroyed. Most, if not all men suffering from addiction have experienced trauma. That trauma may be from childhood physical or sexual abuse, emotional abuse or neglect, or it may be trauma stemming directly from addiction. Regardless of the source, men suffering from addiction are traumatized.
Most men afflicted with addiction have witnessed or been involved in violence while trying to get or use drugs. Bar fights, over-doses and death are common. Many men with severe opiate addiction have traded sex for drugs, often times resulting in sexual and physical trauma. The point is, men with addiction usually have a trauma history.
What is trauma?
Trauma is the reaction to an overwhelmingly negative experience that is perceived as life-threatening. Trauma takes a variety of forms including emotional, physical, sexual, combat, violent crime, and more. The result is a physiological change to the individual’s brain and central nervous system. The individual lives in a state of hyper- arousal, fear and anxiety. According to the American Psychiatric Association, the diagnostic criteria for PTSD include:
1 Exposure to and actual or threatened serious injury, sexual violence or death in one of the following ways:
a Directly experiencing the event
b Witnessing events occurring to others
c Learning that traumatic events occurred to a family member or friend.
d Experiencing repeated extreme exposure to aversive details of the traumatic event
2 The presence of intrusive symptoms associated with the traumatic events beginning after the event occurred which includes memories, recurring distressing dreams, dissociative reactions including flashbacks, intense psychological distress at exposure to internal or external cues that symbolize or resemble an aspect of the traumatic events.
What is EMDR?
In 1987, Francine Shapiro, Ph.D., the originator and developer of Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), noticed that disturbing thoughts she had been replaying in her mind seemed to evaporate while she was walking. Dr. Shapiro focused on the events that took place when she realized her disturbing memories started to abate. The disturbing memories evaporated as she deliberately moved her eyes back and forth rapidly. She explored this phenomenon further with friends and colleagues and found that through stimulating both hemispheres of the brain, people were able to eliminate, or reprocess the disturbing emotions associated with a memory. Since Dr. Shapiro’s discovery, vast amounts of research and evaluation have been conducted on EMDR. Today, this therapeutic approach is a valid, evidenced- based practice that has been proven to be effective in helping people heal from trauma and anxiety.
The foundational principal of EMDR is that the human body and mind are self-healing. However, trauma and disturbing memories can be blocked from healing in the same way that an open wound can be blocked from healing by an infection. Through a prescribed series of steps, the blocks to healing are removed and the mind can “reprocess” traumatic memories and events. The emotional energy surrounding an event or memory evaporates. The intrusive thoughts, feelings, nightmares, and other symptoms of traumas and PTSD are eliminated. One of Dr. Shapiro’s patients reported that his traumatic memory from a combat mission “looks like a paint chip at the bottom of a pool.” He was able to reprocess the suffering from his combat experience.
EMDR Helps Men Heal From Trauma
Multiple myths about men’s reactions to trauma exist in our culture. These include such perspectives as, “men don’t experience trauma; only women do,” “men are not as disturbed by sexual abuse as women,” “men are built to be tough,” and many others. Due to these gender and cultural biases, men’s trauma has been minimized or, worse yet, dismissed by the helping professions.
Engaging men in treatment for substance abuse issues and trauma is challenging; men don’t talk about their feelings, emotions or experiences. Yet we expect men entering treatment to display these characteristics. Group and individual work is focused on expressing feelings, but in our society, men are educated to be resistant to these types of expression. Our culture trains men to function in only one way, but when addiction problems arise, we expect men to function in a completely different manner with completely different rules. Is it any wonder that recidivism into active addiction is so high?
Through implementation of EMDR, men are able to access, identify and process painful memories and emotions quickly and efficiently without entering into that vulnerable position of emotional self- disclosure. Since EMDR is completely client centered, the client is empowered to determine what is addressed in each session. The client may choose to end the session should the experience become overwhelming. The client drives the process, not the clinician. In some instances, the client may choose not to disclose the event or memory that is the target of the session. Not revealing the details of an event or memory has little bearing on the outcome of the session.
The use of EMDR is critical in the treatment of men with trauma and addiction because it doesn’t require men to shed gender role expectations immediately. This is not to say there is no value in the use of other clinical approaches or tools, but it takes time to develop rapport and safety before men fully disclose their histories. In working with men, developing awareness of emotions, taking risks to trust and becoming vulnerable with others is important. The application of EMDR provides men in treatment immediate and profound relief. Experiencing this relief is powerful and encourages men to more fully engage in the treatment process.
Jim Snow is the Clinical Director at Seastone of Delray. He brings more than 25 years of experience in trauma work, substance abuse, mental health and family therapy. Jim is an EMDR practitioner and an Associate Member of the EMDR International Association. He holds a Master of Counselor Education from Penn State and is a Certified Addictions Professional and holds International Certification.