January is back-to-college class season for many students and teachers. We were curious about using EMDR therapy in college and university settings and with college and university students. To answer some questions, we turned to EMDRIA member Viviana Urdaneta, LCSW!
Guest Blog Post by Viviana Urdaneta, LCSW
Tell us a little about you, your experience becoming an EMDR therapist, and your experience using EMDR with college/university students.
My interest in EMDR therapy began when I was still a student in the Master of Social Work program. During my community agency internship, I worked closely with an EMDR therapist (Sharon Rollins, LPC), who later became my consultant and mentor. I completed my basic training with Rick Levinson, LCSW, in 2011 and began to practice it immediately. I worked in a community agency with survivors of domestic violence at the time of my training, and I was impressed by my client’s response to reprocessing trauma with EMDR. They felt relieved, and they felt empowered. I realized I did not have to convince them to think differently because they did so after reprocessing disturbing and traumatic events. They were able to feel relief and assign responsibility where it belonged. They felt and thought differently about themselves and those around them. Later, I moved to California and worked in a university’s counseling center for almost five years with students who were survivors of sexual assault and intimate partner violence. I had the opportunity to provide individual and group EMDR therapy and engaged in advocacy efforts for survivors of trauma.
What is your favorite part of working with this population?
My favorite part of working with students was the diversity of intersectionalities I encountered. Students came from diverse backgrounds, classes, socio-economic statuses, ages, gender, and sexual orientation. Some were struggling because they were the first generation of their family to go to university. Their families had very high, unrealistic expectations or their families were trying to persuade them to drop out of school. Many struggled with racism, discrimination, relationships, and current and past traumas. Some came from minoritized communities and were looking for a place to connect and have community. Others were formerly incarcerated and were trying to prove that their past did not define them. Others were in their second career and did not fit in with the younger generation of students. Many were having issues with time management and needed support to handle many responsibilities.
I was often impressed with their capacity to socialize and create community. Many of the student groups I encountered were examples of advocacy and support. Many developed groups of friends that were like their second family. They were excellent at promoting services via word of mouth. When I began the EMDR groups, it was hard to recruit participants. After some time, I had to open a second weekly EMDR group because many students requested it. Also, I was the only EMDR therapist on campus for some time. Students began to experience EMDR, and they were the ones who told others about it and requested it more and more. Today eight EMDR therapists are working at the counseling center. Many students were curious about EMDR and the research behind it. They asked good questions and were willing to try it.
What issues would you say are the most common issues you’ve seen college/university students present to therapy with?
Many students were dealing with anxiety and depression. However, in many cases, those symptoms were rooted in traumatic events, including childhood trauma and recent traumatic events. Many students considered therapy secondary because their goal was to finish their degree, so they engaged only to reduce symptoms.
Sexual assault and intimate partner violence are extremely common in this population. One in five women (20 percent) will be sexually assaulted while at college, and 4 percent of college men will be sexually assaulted. Traumatic experiences were common among students. One comprehensive study found that 85 percent of surveyed college students had experienced at least one traumatic event in their lives, and one in five students experienced a traumatic event over a two-month period in college (Frazier, 2009). Another study found that many students enter college with significant trauma histories and PTSD symptoms (Read, 2011).
Also, many students were struggling with the use of substances and with disordered eating. Many move away from their families for the first time, and the freedom that they experienced became overwhelming, so they cope with many unhealthy mechanisms.
In addition, many students struggle with Imposter Syndrome, feeling that they are a “fraud” and “do not belong.” A common negative cognition was “I am not good enough.” Often, I used the standard protocol to reprocess current triggers when they felt this way, and (if possible) we reprocessed times in the past when the student learned that they were not good enough following what we know about the Adaptive Information Processing model (AIP). Earlier experiences are the lenses to see our current situations and are the basis for the current symptoms.
 ” White House Council Sexual Assault Report.” International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators, Inc. https://www.justice.gov/archives/ovw/page/file/905942/download ↩︎
What successes have you seen regarding using EMDR therapy with this group?
I used EMDR successfully with this group. I provided individual EMDR therapy and organized EMDR groups using the Integrative Group Protocol Treatment (EMDR- IGTP). Students reported that it was helpful to participate in the EMDR groups. Many reported that they liked to feel support from the other group members without having to talk about their traumas or having to listen to the stories of others that might be triggering. Many students liked the utilization of the butterfly hug because it allowed them to hug themselves, de-escalate their nervous system, and they felt grounded by feeling their bodies.
I learned that it was helpful to explain EMDR using language that was familiar to the student. Usually, I used analogies that were familiar with their field of education. It was important to provide information about the EMDR process and available research. It was crucial to be open to questions and build trust, so therapy was a safeR space. Maybe not completely safe at first, but safeR and safeR with each interaction between the therapist and the client. Many students did not have previous experience with mental health support and therapy, so they were comfortable with not talking much and using bilateral stimulation. Working with students provides the opportunity to impact future generations of professionals and provide healing and support before they begin their careers.
I learned that it was important to pay attention to the time the students had planned to attend therapy and what time of the semester they were coming for services. Some students requested therapy a couple of weeks before graduation and were moving away after it, so they only planned to attend a few sessions. So, clarifying goals and expectations was key for treatment. The protocols for early interventions, such as ASSYST (Acute Stress Syndrome Stabilization Procedure), ISP (Immediate Stabilization Procedure), resourcing, and other EMDR-derived techniques, were helpful. Also, I used PRECI (Protocol for Recent Critical Incidents) to work with students experiencing ongoing traumatic stress. Some experienced trauma before college and continue to experience it in the present.
Are there any myths you’d like to bust about EMDR therapy in college or university settings or populations?
Some people think it is impossible to use EMDR therapy in brief counseling. However, I often used with students the following analogy. Therapy is like cleaning your house. Sometimes you have time to clean every single room. Sometimes you can only focus on cleaning a dish because you need it to eat on it. I asked them, “What is the dish you need to clean first in the short amount of time we have?” What experience do we need to reprocess so you can have some relief? However, it is important to clarify goals and expectations. It is important to work with the student in the treatment plan to assess what is possible with the amount of time available and what they can do later when they can engage in deep cleaning the house.
Can you share any wisdom to help returning college/university students?
The holidays at the year’s end and the semester’s beginning are very stressful. Many students experienced traumatic events with their family of origin while visiting during the break between semesters, so I would advise counselors working with this population to be mindful and ask students about their holiday experiences. Those interactions with their families might be a resource or a target to reprocess.
College students must practice containment and be skillful at it to finish their education. They need to learn strategies to separate from their trauma so they can decide when to visit those traumatic memories. Containment will give them a strategy to use when memories appear uninvited and they feel triggered. However, it is imperative to emphasize that containment is not to forget the traumatic memories but to learn how to separate from them so the person can decide when to access them to reprocess.
Some ideas for containment can be worrying dolls, file cabinets, a backpack, a DO NOT open the file in their computer, or a note in their cellphone. Anything that allows the student to acknowledge traumatic memories but contains them and accesses them only during reprocessing.
Viviana Urdaneta, LCSW, is a trauma therapist with 12 years of experience. She is an EMDR Consultant and EMDR Certified Therapist who has worked in community mental health agencies, university settings, and private practice. Urdaneta uses an intercultural and intentional approach around issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Currently, she works for the EMDR International Association and has a private practice in California and Texas where she practices in both English and Spanish. She is an immigrant from Colombia, South-America who is committed to promoting a trauma-informed approach when working with different populations including survivors of trauma, intimate partner violence, and sexual assault.
California Community Colleges. Trauma Informed Care Fact Sheet. California Community Colleges Student Mental Health Program (CCC SMHP). https://www.emdria.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/01/TIC-Fact-Sheet.pdf
Fedina, L., Holmes, J. L., & Backes, B. L. (2018). Campus Sexual Assault: A Systematic Review of Prevalence Research From 2000 to 2015. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse, 19(1), 76–93. https://doi.org/10.1177/1524838016631129
Frazier, P., Anders, S., Perera, S., Tomich, P., Tennen, H., Park, C., & Tashiro, T. (2009). Traumatic events among undergraduate students: Prevalence and associated symptoms. Journal of Counseling Psychology 56(3), 450-60. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0016412
Irish, A. J. (2020). Using recent traumatic episode protocol in college counseling centers. Journal of College Counseling, 23(2), 180-192. https://doi.org/10.1002/jocc.12158
Read, J. P., Ouimette, P., White, J., Colder, C., & Farrow, S. (2011). Rates of DSM-IV-TR Trauma Exposure and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder Among Newly Matriculated College Students. Psychological Trauma 3(2), 148-56. https://doi.org/10.1037%2Fa0021260
Toprak-Yildiz, T. E., Colak, T. S., Koc, M., & Dusunceli, B. (2021). The application of eye movement desensitization and reprocessing treatment (EMDR) on adults with foreign language anxiety. Language Learning in Higher Education, 11(2). https://doi.org/10.1515/cercles-2021-2023
White House Task Force to Protect Students From Sexual Assault. (2014). Not Alone. https://www.justice.gov/archives/ovw/page/file/905942/download
Yendi, F. M., Tririzky, R., Antoni, F., Ifdil, I., & Sukmawati, I. (2021). EMDR: An alternative effective tool for reduction of academic stress? Psychology and Education, 58(1), 4133-4139. Open access: https://doi.org/10.17762/pae.v58i1.1477
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