Trauma and EMDR
“It wasn’t that bad. Other people have it worse.”
That’s the story we usually tell ourselves when we feel shame for having an emotional response to difficult or traumatic events. We think, “I’m still here, so was it really that bad?” We tell ourselves stories about what “counts” as trauma or about how “bad” things have to be before we deserve help.
But if trauma is affecting your daily life, you deserve help! Our trauma therapists can help you get the support you need, and we can start it by rewriting the story you tell yourself about trauma.
Did you know that trauma is actually more about your response to an event than the event itself? And your response is rarely a chosen response; it just is.
We often tell ourselves the story that to be deserving of help, we must experience something terrible–and if it was terrible it must be the worst, most terrible thing in order for us to deserve care. If we grow up believing that story, we might not recognize when something is a traumatic experience for us.
With our trauma therapists, you’ll learn that trauma isn’t actually about the severity of what happened to you. What we know as trauma is your physiological and emotional response to the event. Any event that leaves you feeling frightened, isolated, or overwhelmed would be considered a traumatic event. Some examples of of traumatic events can be:
- Car accidents or other suddenly dangerous events
- Experiencing or witnessing domestic violence
- Sexual violence
- Natural disasters
- Severe illness
- Severe injury
- Death of a loved one
- Witnessing an act of violence
“But I haven’t lived through one of these events. Can what I experience still be considered trauma?”
Short answer: yes.
Long answer: Trauma can come from a one time event, or it can stem from an ongoing experience that produces unrelenting stress or distress. This is what we call chronic or long term trauma. That’s what you may be experiencing if traumatic responses are coming up for you, but none of the above apply.
Things that would fall under chronic or long term trauma include:
- Growing up with caregivers who weren’t emotionally responsive
- Emotional abuse
- Witnessing abuse or violence
- Lack of emotional safety in family relationships
- Food insecurity
- Other “small t” traumas
And now, living with trauma is making you feel like a different person.
Trauma shows up differently for all of us. It can depend on the event we lived through, our own personal history, and so many other factors. Our trauma therapists will help you explore how your trauma is showing up in your life, and why.
But one of the most common experiences of people living with trauma, is that they don’t feel like themselves anymore. They feel shaken, nervous, maybe even out of control. Or, maybe trauma becomes masked under anger or increased use of substances or other strategies to numb.
If these are things you’re feeling, you’re not alone–and they don’t define you. While part of your work with our trauma therapists will be to find coping mechanisms and methods of healing, we can first thank the ways our trauma shows up for bringing our attention to areas we need some extra care.
Some ways trauma shows up can include:
- Cognitive: intrusive thoughts, nightmares, mood swings, frequent confusion
- Behavioral: avoidance of activities/places linked to event, self isolation, lack of interest in hobbies
- Physical: increased startle response, trouble sleeping, fatigue, chronic aches and pains, increased alertness, feeling always on edge, appetite changes
- Psychological: being suddenly emotionally detached, feeling extreme fear near constantly, feeling emotionally numb, increased irritability, increased feelings of depression and anxiety, frequent shame or guilt
These things might be part of your story, but they don’t define your future. You’re capable of healing, and we can help you start to feel in control of your life again.
Our trauma therapists are here to help you work through your trauma. We’ll help you understand your experience, and how it’s showing up in your life today. In your time together, you and your trauma therapist will work together to teach you strategies to connect with what you’re feeling, express those feelings, and cope with stressful or triggering events in the future.
Meet our trauma therapists:
We treat trauma in several different ways.
The modality that will work “best” will be unique to you. Three ways we work with trauma are through:
- Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy
- Emotionally Focused Individual Therapy
- and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)
Those first two modalities are probably close to what you picture when you picture therapy: talk therapy! Emotionally focused therapy consists of three stages:
- Stage 1: You begin to describe and explore (and from there gain understanding of) your negative cycles. We’ll work with you to help you slow down and learn to talk about what’s going on when you feel triggered, instead of escalating or reacting without thinking.
- Stage 2: This is where you focus on healing–by recognizing your experience and choosing to share it with your partner (and allow them the space to do the same) you’re able to meet them from a place of empathy and understanding. From here you’re able to create new patterns of love and support. We call these Corrective Emotional Experiences; basically getting the kind of response you needed but didnt’ get when you were going through the difficult trauma.
- Stage 3: From this security, you can revisit old issues and work through them with confidence, and you will have the tools to work through new issues as they come up.
In Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy we’ll work on helping you and your partner learn how to be a good source of comfort and soothing when one or both of you are trauma survivors. In Emotionally Focused Individual therapy (another form of talk therapy) we’ll work to help you unisolate your painful memories. Both methods are used to provide you a “corrective emotional experience” guided by your therapist.
You might be less familiar with our other trauma treatment method, EMDR. So, what is EMDR?
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a highly specialized therapy used to overcome the effects of traumatic or upsetting experiences. Since its discovery and development in 1987 as a treatment for PTSD, EMDR is now used to help not only clients needing to process trauma, but those looking for a new approach to treatment for depression, anxiety, low self esteem, phobias, and more.
How does EMDR work?
When a person is highly distressed or traumatized, the brain’s normal information processing is interrupted. Essentially, it heightens our trauma responses and takes away our ability to make sense of the context. Because of this, after, you may react to certain present situations as if you were still in the traumatic event.
This can sound a little confusing so imagine it like this: let’s say you experience a traumatic event. During this instance, there is an overpowering smell of beer. While normally, the smell of beer may signal nothing but an adult beverage, your brain has linked the smell of beer to the traumatic event. Now, when you smell beer in a different setting, your brain may not be able to process the fact that the context of the situation is different, and it could trigger your same trauma response. While consciously you will know that the smell of beer presents no danger to you, your brain will think you are back in the traumatic event.
EMDR helps clients to both process the past, sore it away in an orderly, healthy fashion, as well as to correct those dysfunctional connections our brains made in moments of trauma.
EMDR is thought to function similarly to dreaming or REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. During REM sleep, our eyes (you guessed it!) move back and forth at a rapid pace and our brain has activity function similar to when we’re awake! And lack of proper REM sleep can be detrimental to learning, memory, and emotional health.
What happens in EMDR?
EMDR does not cause clients to forget the past, nor is it intended to recall lost memories. EMDR helps put upsetting experiences behind us in healthy, empowered ways. Self-esteem is enhanced, relationships recover, behavior improves, and emotions stabilize.
While you won’t be on a walk as Dr. Francine Shapiro did when she discovered eye movement and relief around a distressing event, the eye-movement component is still very much a part of EMDR. A crucial part of EMDR is what is called dual stimulation: that’s sound, light, or touch you have to track across your body or field of view. Eye movement is one way, but it’s not the only method of dual stimulation used in EMDR! There are also different methods of alternating tapping, sounds, or even handheld clickers that can be used for this dual stimulation.
EMDR combines therapeutic methods with these eye movements, or rhythmic hand taps or sounds, and to target a stressful past event and “re-programming” the memory with a more positive and empowered view.
EMDR is also not hypnosis! While the image of tracking your eyes back and forth might conjure up images of hypnotists dangling pocket watches, that is not what EMDR therapy is. There is no entering a trance, and you are fully aware of what’s happening the whole time.
EMDR is an eight phase treatment. They go like this:
Phase One: History Taking and Resource Development. Here is where you and your clinician will go over possible targets (memories) for the treatment plan, and your clinician will create a treatment plan specific to you. This phase is also where you’ll learn any skills or develop any internal resources you may need to have during the EMDR treatment. These can be relaxation skills, or being able to call to mind a vivid picture of a Safe Place or someone (real or imagined) who encourages you and understands your struggles.
Phase Two: EMDR is based around targeting stressful, upsetting, and traumatic memories. This means it is possible you will need more than one tool to handle emotional distress as it comes up. In this phase, your clinician will ensure you have multiple ways of handling instances of emotional distress.
Phases Three Through Six: These phases all work together. They are the components used while targeting and reprocessing those distressing or disturbing memories. In these phases you work on identifying: 1) an image related to the memory, 2) a negative belief you hold about yourself when you think of the memory and 3) any emotions or physical symptoms that come up with the memory. This is also the phase where the negative belief will be reprocessed into an earlier chosen positive alternative. Essentially, these phases are where the “EMDR” you’re imagining are happening.
Phase Seven: Closure. This is any sort of record or log that your clinician will ask you to keep between sessions.
Phase Eight: This phase is actually at the start of the next session, and it’s all about reviewing the process made so far. If anything has come up in time between sessions, this is also the time you can go over it with your therapist and determine what steps to take next!
While that can all sound a little clinical or technical, basically what is happening in EMDR is you are choosing a memory to recall, and holding it and the sensations it brings with it altogether as you also work with that dual stimulation. And your therapist will guide you through any prompts or thought exercises you’ll need!
What kinds of problems can EMDR alleviate?
EMDR originated as a means of treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and major trauma. However, EMDR can be quite helpful with “small t” traumas — upsetting events that happen in everyday life that may leave us feeling negative about ourselves or the world. Examples include struggling in school; being ridiculed by a parent, spouse, or coworker; or getting lost as a child in a public place. EMDR has been helpful with the following mental health concerns:
|Sexual abuse||Marital issues|
|Panic attacks||Sexual concerns|
|Obsessive-compulsive disorders||Relationship problems|
What are some benefits of EMDR?
The main benefit of EMDR is the speed at which deep-seated problems can be resolved. Single sessions of EMDR have been shown to produce results, and research shows an average treatment time of five EMDR sessions to comprehensively treat PTSD.
Above, we described the treatment as targeting a stressful event from the past and while that’s true–in your session you’ll be focusing on one event or image in your mind specifically–but the way that memories are stored in your brain are in connected clusters. So when you target that stressful or traumatic memory and “reprogram” it with a more positive, empowered view, you’re not just doing it for that one memory! You’re actually targeting the entire cluster of memories–so any memories stored with that traumatic memory will undergo that same “reprogramming” process.
And unlike many “talk” therapies, EMDR does not require the client to go into detail about past distressing events. While communicating and establishing trust with the therapist is essential, there is no need to analyze the trauma for long periods of time. Moreover, belief in EMDR therapy isn’t even necessary for it to work!
More information about EMDR
EMDR has been around since the late 1980’s. Research on EMDR is ongoing, and to date there is more research to support it than any other treatment for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
EMDR on the web (including research information):
EMDR International Association www.emdria.org
EMDR Humanitarian Assistance Program www.emdrhap.org