In general, there is a lack of specific empirical research to support the safety or lack of safety of using Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) into a trauma treatment plan during pregnancy.
But, there are many experienced trauma clinicians who work extensively with pregnant women. Here are some informed opinions from some perinatal clincians who use EMDR.
Background: Maternal Stress and the Uborn
The mom and uborn (yes, folks, uborn, for unborn baby, borrowed from writer Michelle LeClaire O'Neill) are connected via stress hormones, which reach the uborn via the placenta.
There are many studies about the effects of stress hormones on the uborn. In general, the research draws a distinct difference between the impact of moderate amounts of stress and the impact of long-term chronic stress. (For a more detailed discussion of this, see How Much Stress is Too Much Stress in Pregnancy?)
Research indicates that chronic and extreme stress are famine, poverty, major natural disasters, domestic violence and other extreme life stressors. Studies show the release of excessive amounts of maternal stress hormones may impact the uborn's brain development. In addition, there may be changes in the blood flow to the uborn and this may impact the development of other organs. Individual factors, such as social support and individual resilience, mitigates the effects of extreme stress.
While there isn't much specific research about the effects of using Eye Movement Desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) to treat PSTD (childbirth onset) in the pregnant population, there is a lot of research about using EMDR to treat PTSD in the general population.
Clinicians' experiences regarding the safety of using EMDR with a pregnancy client
In treating pregnant women for trauma, several guidelines emerged:
Little or no empirical research on this issue exists
Clinician must be experienced in trauma work
Clinician must use good clinical judgment, as it is not always appropriate to go forward
Treatment must be tailored to the individual woman and her needs
Recommend consultation with her physician if there are existing physical issues or if she is in her third trimester
Processing traumatic material during pregnancy generally does more good than harm
Clinicians cited some benefits to helping release trauma during pregnancy:
processing attachment trauma (abuse) promotes healthy attachment & bonding behaviors
enhances enjoyment of pregnancy
enhances confidence in healthy birth
can be used to reinforce positivity about the birth, including what was learned in childbirth classes, such as the Lamaze methods
Julia Wood, M.D., a psychiatrist specializing in women's issues, has a special focus on trauma and borderline personality disorder. She is Medical Director of Brookhaven Recovery Retreat for Women. Her past position was at the Massachusetts General Hospital Center of Women's Health. She began by saying, when working with traumatic material with pregnant women, in the absence of empirical research indicative of either benefit or harm to the developing fetus, one must use good clinical judgment.
While at Massachusetts General Hospital's Center for Women's Health, she worked with a disenfranchised population: pregnant women under chronic stress due to domestic violence and poverty. Although she believes caution should be used when treating traumatic material with a pregnant woman, she said her overall clinical experiences indicated it was beneficial for her patients to be treated for their psychological trauma during pregnancy.
Dr. Wood stated the mental health support helped her patients process their personal traumatic experiences, be more confident about pregnancy and birth, form a more positive attachment with their babies and learn positive coping skills.
Dr. Wood said she does not favor any particular trauma treatment modality, but stressed that the value of clinical experience when treating trauma is key and good clinical judgment is a necessary component of compassionate and successful treatment.
Heidi Koss, LCSW, Executive Director of Postpartum Support International of Washington State, and an expert clinician in childbirth trauma, says she uses an integrative approach with pregnant clients. She creates an individualized treatment plan, incorporating EMDR and other modalities such as interpersonal therapy, mindfulness and somatic experiencing to help her clients process traumatic material. When using EMDR, she says “....I don’t have them recall all the details of their previous traumatic birth, just enough to access the neural pathways we are targeting in order to calm, to lessen any spikes in cortisol that might impact the fetus.”
Kathleen Reay, Ph.D., who has been teaching EMDR for 12 years, has worked extensively with traumatic material with pregnancy clients. Dr. Reay stresses that good clinical judgment must always be used.
Dr. Reay says she's never come across any safety issues in her work with pregnant clients and she believes there are extensive benefits to working through traumatic material while pregnant. However, Dr. Reay says that when the mother has a pre-existing medical or physical issue, or if she is in her third trimester, she discusses her work with her client's physician, before beginning any treatment with EMDR, in order to ensure safety. She also says it's important to discuss the treatment with the mom, too, assuring her she may stop the session(s) at any time.
Dr. Reay believes the benefits to processing traumatic material during pregnancy are twofold. One, it helps the mom work out her own traumatic attachment issues (perhaps related to abuse) and addresses pervasive emotional dysregulation, thus promoting self-regulation, appropriate regulation of her baby and a secure attachment with her uborn and newborn.
Two, EMDR can be used to strengthen the mom's own resources and positive attitudes about her upcoming birth, such as positive beliefs that she will be able to get the support shes needs, and EMDR can be used to reinforce whatever birth practice the mom chooses to use, including Lamaze's positive birth practices.
Julie Greene is an EMDR trainer with extensive experience with pregnancy and trauma. She has been practicing EMDR since 1998 and teaching since 2005. Ms. Greene says as a trainer as well as a clinician, she stresses caution and safety first. She has extensive experience with using EMDR during pregnancy, and has an integrative approach, using mindfulness in her practice as well.
Like Dr. Reay, Ms. Greene uses EMDR to do resource development with any pregnant client, in order to strengthen inner feelings of self-efficacy and emotional flexibility.
Also like Dr. Reay, her cautionary clinical signals are if the mom was either in her third trimester or experiencing physical difficulties, she first speaks to her client's physician, in order to assess whether or not to proceed with the trauma treatment.
Generally, her thoughts are the benefits to the baby are usually higher than the risk. Ms. Greene says the best reasons to do EMDR trauma work during pregnancy are when there are issues stuck in the mom's bodymind related to pregnancy and birth. For example, she says, if the mom is terrified and stressed the entire pregnancy, there is a benefit to the current pregnancy to clear this out of the mother's system using EMDR.
Or, if the client has traumatic history, such as sexual abuse, locked in her body, this can cause a lot of mental and emotional difficulty during pregnancy. There may be a lot of shame and negative thoughts and feelings about her body, the pregnancy, and fears of becoming a parent. Ms. Greene says EMDR is a good way to release this.
Like Dr. Reay, Ms. Greene uses EMDR to help her clients access and strengthen their internal resources, so they feel and believe they made good decisions that are right for them for their personal birth and parenting experience.
So, in general. when using EMDR to help a pregnant woman get through emotional and psychological trauma, clinicians use caution and follow good clinical guidelines. They created individualized treatment for each woman. In general, the professionals found the benefits regarding birthing and parenting confidence outweighed the harm.