We all go through experiences that can be difficult, confusing, painful, or overwhelming, and sometimes we feel that we are at a loss to know how to deal with them. When we live through these traumatic experiences oftentimes we feel overwhelmed, full of panic and anxiety and find it hard to move on or find peace. We can all think of experiences, some from our childhood and others from the present that make us cringe, make us want to cry, want to run away, or there are some that are too paralyzing to think about. These are all forms of trauma. Our brains have different parts of it that help us navigate the world. We have the smaller brain which is our protective brain which helps us respond quickly in the presence of a threat. It’s the part of the brain that tells us to fight, flight (run away), or freeze. Then we have the amygdala that loops information between the smaller brain and the larger brain—our reasoning part of the brain. The part of the brain that can tell us to calm down, interpret the threat differently or find purpose to a lived experience. When we have experienced trauma, the amygdala skips the big brain and when triggered keeps us looping in the smaller brain.
On of the most well researched and evidenced-based treatments for trauma is a tool called EMDR; Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. The theory behind how EMDR works is based on the belief that when we experience REM sleep (you know the phase of sleep where your eyes move back and forth) our brains are processing the events of the day. The premise of EMDR is that we use rapid eye movement and create a safe environment to give the brain permission to process and put to rest the sensations, emotions, negative beliefs, and other associations related to the trauma we have experienced.
The first part of EMDR treatment is creating a relationship of trust with the therapist and creating safety. The reason why trauma can be so hard to deal with is because a part of us was hurt by it, and we want to protect ourselves from being hurt again. EMDR is a safe treatment where we don’t have to relive the trauma. It is the therapist’s job to make sure you we have the resources we need in order to proceed with the treatment. This entails creating a mindful, safe place and practicing to make sure we can switch from a distressed state to a calm state. The therapist also helps to assess if we are ready to do EMDR or if we need to build other resources beforehand.
EMDR works by targeting specific memories, negative beliefs, and sensations to help relieve the distress they cause. The next phase of treatment is to identify the different memories and other memories we might have felt the same. The therapist will then suggest the target memory that would be the best to work on first. Usually the best memory to target is the first time we felt a certain way and not necessarily the most present issue. The belief is that by treating the earlier memory it will generalize into other experiences. Plus, they are usually easier memories to clear because they are further in the past and have less details.
The goal of the desensitization phase of treatment is to use the rapid eye movement and the safety that has been created to allow for the negative beliefs, feeling and sensations related to the memory to be put to rest. Distress is measured on a scale from 0 to 10 where 0 is neutral or no distress and 10 is the highest level of distress imaginable. The goal of this phase of treatment is to have 0 distress or neutral feelings when thinking back to the target memory. This is an incredible thing when the memory of the experience causes no distress. Some people describe it like not being able to see the experience any more or like it is trying to recall something that is distant or far away.
After removing the distress of the experience, the next stage is to replace the negative beliefs with more positive beliefs and use the rapid eye movement to enhance the belief that those beliefs are true. These are rated on a scale from 1 to 7 where 1 is completely false and 7 is completely true. The goal of this phase is for the client to feel that their positive belief is completely true and even go higher on the scale past 7. Some people have described this experience as euphoric and very pleasurable, being able to think positively about themselves after so much doubt and fear.
The next phase of treatment is to clear out any unusual or odd sensations in the body to verify that the trauma which has been stored in the body can be cleared out. This is done by scanning the body and then using the rapid eye movement to process any unpleasant sensations until the body is relaxed and free.
After doing such amazing work the next phase of treatment is to create a scenario where they might be challenged in the future by triggers or situations that possibly we have been avoiding because of the trauma. The therapist uses the rapid eye movement to enhance the confidence in living those situations in the way we would want to live instead of feeling controlled by a trauma response.
I am grateful that there are treatments like EMDR available that offer relief after experiencing trauma. I also want to share that it is just another tool available and that it might not be for everyone or the timing might not be right for some individuals. It has been amazing to see the relief that people have experienced as I have worked with them. EMDR has been an important clinical advancement and a powerful tool to help anyone seeking to grow and overcome something in their life to feel centered and whole.