Human Performance

Aviators don’t want to talk about depression!

By December 5, 2018 No Comments

How EMDR can help Aviators to heal mind & body without verbalising emotions

Eye Movement Desensitization & Reprocessing (EMDR) is a fairly new, non-traditional type of psychotherapy. It’s growing in popularity, particularly for treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD often occurs after experiences such as military combat, physical assault, rape, car accidents, and aviation incidents and accidents. For Aviators, it is even more important to understand why trauma is not always visible to our own rational mind, especially when we are continuously disassociated from our body.

When it comes to the “Human Pilot” mental health, Pilots themselves are hesitant when talking about experiencing depression, trauma or emotional struggles past or present. It’s completely understandable when your primary fear is to be stigmatised in the industry, or the potential loss of your license. The same applies for Cabin Crew – even if their roles would be considered to impact safety at a different level. I know this feeling well, as I hid my depression for many years before it exploded in full, translating in me taking 6-months away from flying.

I realised quickly that admitting to suffering from a mental illness in the Aviation industry, did not bring the results I would have hoped for. Help & support without stigmatisation or punishment.

I cannot fault a management who was unable to help, simply because they lack awareness – appropriate education and training. To be truly honest, they had no idea how to address the problem without trying to make it go away!

The Aviation Industry is only now beginning to become aware about the impact of depression in Aviators performance, and the direct link to human error.

EMDR appears to approach psychological issues in an unusual way. It does not rely on therapy through discussion or medication.

Instead, EMDR uses a patient’s own rapid, rhythmic eye movements. These eye movements dampen the power of emotionally-charged memories of past traumatic events.

What Can You Expect From EMDR?

An EMDR treatment session can last up to 90-minutes. Your therapist will move his or her fingers back and forth in front of your face and ask you to follow these hand motions with your eyes. At the same time, the EMDR therapist will have you recall a disturbing event. This will include the emotions and body sensations that go along with it.

Gradually, the therapist will guide you to shift your thoughts to more pleasant ones. Some therapists use alternatives to finger movements, such as hand or toe tapping or musical tones.

People who use the technique argue that EMDR can weaken the effect of negative emotions. Before and after each EMDR treatment, your therapist will ask you to rate your level of distress. The hope is that your disturbing memories will become less disabling.

Although most research into EMDR has examined its use in people with PTSD, EMDR is sometimes used experimentally to treat many other psychological problems. They include:

How Effective Is EMDR?

More than 20,000 practitioners have been trained to use EMDR since psychologist Francine Shapiro developed the technique in 1989. While walking through the woods one day, Shapiro happened to notice that her own negative emotions lessened as her eyes darted from side to side. Then, she found the same positive effect in patients.

EMDR appears to be a safe therapy, with no negative side effects. Still, despite its increasing use, mental health practitioners debate EMDR’s effectiveness. Critics note that most EMDR studies have involved only small numbers of participants. Other researchers, though, have shown the treatment’s effectiveness in published reports that consolidated data from several studies.

What Do the Guidelines Recommend?

Guidelines issued by more than one professional organization have recently boosted the credibility of EMDR. These guidelines define who may benefit from the treatment.

For example:

  • The American Psychiatric Association (APA) has noted that EMDR is effective for treating symptoms of acute and chronic PTSD. According to the APA, EMDR may be particularly useful for people who have trouble talking about the traumatic events they’ve experienced. The APA guidelines note that other research is needed to tell whether improvements from EMDR can be sustained over time.
  • The Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Defense have jointly issued clinical practice guidelines. These guidelines “strongly recommended” EDMR for the treatment of PTSD in both military and non-military populations. They also note that this approach has been as effective as other psychological treatments in some studies, and less effective in others.

Maybe we need to stop talking, whilst dominated by the fear of being caught in a moment of emotional vulnerability and being punished for it.

I am sure that our amazing Aviation Psychology Team, will start to consider the use EMDR as an additional tool to promote resilience and help Aviators to resolve some pressing issues in a less challenging manner.


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