Uncovering Mysteries of Trauma and EMDR

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is an 8-phase, evidence-based treatment for trauma. In order to understand the function of EMDR, it is helpful to understand what is trauma. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) describes trauma as “events or circumstances experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or life threatening, which result in adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and well-being.” One of the simplest, working definitions of trauma I have come across is that trauma is any experience or event that is too much, too soon or too fast for our nervous system to handle, especially if we can’t reach a successful resolution. Trauma does not reside in a specific event or experience, but rather in the physiological response within the nervous system. Working within this definition of trauma, it is easy to see how trauma can put individuals  at a greater risk for health-risk behaviors and chronic health conditions later in life, though few people realize there is a connection.  Health-risk behaviors and how those impact our lives, as well as somatic symptoms associated with trauma are typically what brings people to therapy.

The EMDR approach to treatment of trauma believes past emotionally charged experiences and their impact on our central nervous system, are overly influencing your present emotions, sensations, and thoughts about yourself. EMDR processing helps to break through the emotional blocks that prevent people from living adaptive and emotionally healthy lives. Additionally, allowing our bodies and minds to retrieve and “reprocess” these events, which we were not able to do before, i.e., “too much, too soon, too fast,” Another way I like to explain this process is like retrieving an old misplaced file from the hard drive, editing and saving it in a new location.

So how on earth is that possible, you might ask? Well, our brains already possess the tools for this job. It’s called Rapid Eye Movement, otherwise known as REM. When we go to sleep, we (ideally) fall into what we call REM sleep. For someone with a sleep disorder, they are likely not getting much of this. This is the stage of sleep that allows our brains to process the input from the day. REM sleep is essential for our health. EMDR essentially replicates this rapid eye movement through a process called bi-lateral stimulation. This can be achieved by either tracking the clinicians’ fingers in a swift, left-right pattern for a certain number of “sets,” or it can be achieved through tactile stimulation by holding a small vibrating device, that we call “tappers”, in each hand. The tappers alternate in the same left-right sequence. A third option is auditory, which involves binaural tones heard through headphones. All methods are effective, and it is based on client preference as well as to which the clinician will use. Some clients who suffer from migraines may find that finger tracking causes strain on the eyes and can possibly trigger a headache. In cases such as this, one of the other methods would be best.

One thing that many clients like about EMDR, is that it is not necessary to talk about all the details of your experiences with the clinician for them to be processed. All that is required is for the client to think about the experience or event. This process essentially fires up the affected neural networks in the brain that we have triggered. Once processing is complete, the client’s recollection is NOT erased, but is experienced differently. Instead of reliving the experience, with all its intensity, it loses the emotional and physical charge. Our brains have essentially “digested” it.  I like to compare it to looking at the event out the window of a train and just watching it pass by without the mental or physical impact that use to accompany such recollection.

Helpful resources

If you are interested in learning more about EMDR or would like to schedule an appointment, reach out through the contact page or call our office.

This article was written by Tonya Nowlin, MA, LPC. To learn more about Tonya please visit her bio.

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