The past is the present...
How do horrific experiences cause people to become frozen, stuck in the past?
What happens in people’s minds that keep them trapped in a place they so desperately want to escape from?
Why are some people unable to make their past into a story that happened a long time ago? What prevents them from understanding “that was then, this is now”?
Why do some people become detached, isolated, numb and empty after previously functioning well? Or they alternate between episodes of rage and long periods of being emotionally shut down.
It is very difficult for a traumatized person to organize their trauma experience into a coherent account. They usually have no words to describe it. Sometimes the story is told in fragments with no linear beginning, middle and end. Their bodies can remember the terror, rage and helplessness, but the feelings and thoughts are very difficult to verbalize. Similar sensations, sounds and smells can often trigger a flashback that brings the incident back into awareness.
But, just knowing the root of the trauma or the cause of someone’s depression or pain years later does not fix the problem. No matter how much insight and understanding we develop, the rational brain cannot talk the emotional brain out of its own reality. It’s not enough to know that you shouldn’t be feeling this way 30 years later, but the body still feels what it feels.
Traumatized people have a tendency to superimpose their trauma on everything around them. They look at the world in a fundamentally different way from other people.
Many resort to using drugs, alcohol or self-mutilation to block out their memories.
One of the most difficult things for a traumatized person to confront is their shame about how they behaved during a traumatic experience. Many are haunted about what they did or did not do under the circumstances. For instance, with child abuse victims, many are shamed about the relationship that they had to continue to maintain with their abuser, often resulting in confusion about love and terror.
Trauma results in a fundamental reorganization of the way the mind and brain manages perceptions. It changes how we think, what we think about and our capacity to think. In order to treat victims of trauma, the body needs to learn that the danger has passed and to live in the reality of the present.
A person who was sexually molested 30 years ago can still feel the same helplessness, smell the alcohol on her perpetrators breath, see the color of the carpet and feel the same physical pain as if it were happening in the present.
You cannot completely eliminate pain, suffering and unhappiness from your life, nor would you want to. But you CAN reduce the severity, duration, intrusiveness and frequency of the pain.
Unconscious memories govern our reactions to the world around us. Every association we make is based upon our memory networks. The goal is to recognize that unprocessed memories have us reacting to the world on auto pilot, and be more aware of what are triggers are.
Our memory networks
We are all products of our upbringing, environment, genetics and experiences. The experiences we encounter become encoded in our memory networks and are the basis for how we perceive the world and relate to others. It also can create maladaptive ways of thinking, feeling and behaving well into our adulthood. This is the result of painful, traumatic or disturbing unprocessed memories. When negative reactions, or a negative emotional charge that is felt in the present is traced back to an earlier memory, those memories are considered “unprocessed.” What I mean by that is they are stored in the brain in a way that still brings up the same emotions, physical sensations and beliefs in the present that were felt when the original experience happened.
Any sounds, smells or images such as a firecracker reminds a combat veteran of an ambush 25 years ago, thus re-living the paralyzing fear and terror he experienced in Vietnam.
These negative reactions don’t serve us well today. It was an adaptive response to something that happened in the past, but no longer serves us in the present. We often find that experiences in childhood are the root cause of psychological problems today. But remember, as children, we didn’t have a choice; we had little control over our lives. We didn’t ask for what happened to us. Our caregivers/parents were supposed to protect us. And when they didn’t or didn’t know how to, or were absent or neglectful, things happened.
When memories are not adaptively resolved; meaning your brain learns what it needs to in order to survive and discards what is no longer useful, it gets stuck, frozen in place. This happens when a disturbing experience overwhelms the brain, thus preventing the information processing system from making the adaptive connections needed for resolution. These memories then become the foundation for emotional, physical and psychological problems later on.
It doesn’t necessarily need to be a major trauma that you have experienced. It could be anything that causes present day distress when you recall the incident in your mind.
While it is highly treatable, PTSD often leads to other issues—like depression, severe isolation, substance abuse, and suicide attempts—which only exacerbate the main problem.
EMDR helps people resolve trauma
What is EMDR?
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, or EMDR, is a psychotherapy technique which has been very successful in helping people who suffer from trauma, anxiety, panic disorders, phobias, disturbing memories, PTSD and many other emotional problems.
EMDR therapy combines different elements to maximize treatment effects. EMDR therapy involves attention to three time periods: the past, present, and future. Focus is given to past disturbing memories and related events. Also, it is given to current situations that cause distress, and to developing the skills and attitudes needed for positive future actions.
In EMDR all the work is completed during therapy sessions. There is no homework assigned. At the end of a session, the therapist will close down the session using calming and grounding techniques and the treatment will continue at the next session.
The therapist acts as a facilitator for this treatment. They do not analyze or interpret anything during a session. The client does all the work. The EMDR therapy uses bilateral stimulation, right/left eye movement, or tactile stimulation, which repeatedly activates the opposite sides of the brain, releasing emotional experiences that are "trapped" in the nervous system. As troubling images and feelings are processed by the brain via the eye-movement patterns of EMDR, resolution of the issues and a more peaceful state are achieved.
One of the advantages of this technique is that the client is not asked to describe the memory in great detail. They simply must “hold the image” in their mind while having their eyes follow a light bar back and forth.
How does EMDR work?
When disturbing experiences happen, they are stored in the brain with all the sights, sounds, thoughts and feelings that accompany it. When a person is very upset, the brain seems to be unable to process the experience as it would normally. Therefore, the negative thoughts and feelings of the traumatic event are "trapped" in the nervous system. Since the brain cannot process these emotions, the experience and/or its accompanying feelings are often suppressed from consciousness. However, the distress lives on in the nervous system where it causes disturbances in the emotional functioning of the person.
The EMDR Technique does two very important things. First, it "unlocks" the negative memories and emotions stored in the nervous system, and second, it helps the brain to successfully process the experience.
What happens during a EMDR session?
Just as EMDR assists the brain with its natural processing of emotional information, the EMDR therapist assists the client in their healing process by becoming a partner on a journey to release past trauma from the client's nervous system.
A typical EMDR session begins with the therapist gently guiding the client to pinpoint a problem or event that will be the target of the treatment. As the thoughts and feelings come to the surface, the therapist and client work together to re-direct the eye movements that accompany the briefly recalled experience. As the eye movements are re-directed, the accompanying emotions are released. The patterns of eye movements continue until the emotions are neutralized and the event is re-associated with positive thoughts and feelings about oneself, such as "I realize now that it wasn't my fault."
How often would I need EMDR Therapy?
Typically, an EMDR session lasts from 60 to 90 minutes. The length of the session depends upon a number of factors, including the nature and history of the problem, the degree of trauma, the specific circumstances on that particular day, etc. The history and evaluations are usually done in a few sessions. Then, in some cases, where a single recent traumatic event is involved, a single session of EMDR may be all that is required. However, a more typical course of treatment is somewhere between 5 and 15 sessions usually on a weekly basis. For individuals with a history of complex trauma more sessions would be required.
How do I know if EMDR is right for me?
There are a number factors to consider when evaluating the appropriateness of EMDR therapy. During your initial consultation with an EMDR therapist, all the relevant factors will be discussed in full to help you both come to a decision to move forward with EMDR. Usually, several sessions are necessary for the therapist to evaluate whether or not EMDR is the appropriate choice of therapy.
In general, though, you are an excellent candidate for the EMDR technique if you have...
...difficulty trusting people
...fear of being alone
...lack of motivation
...anxiety or panic
...frequent feelings of guilt or shame
...poor concentration or memory
...explosive or irrational anger
...worrying or brooding
...serious relationship problems
...stage fright or performance anxiety
...obsessive or compulsive behavior
...extreme, unexplainable fears
...depression or disturbing thoughts
...a history of abuse, or sexual abuse
...been the victim of a crime or serious accident
...witnessed a crime or serious accident
...been through a natural disaster
...ever experienced a traumatic event
Ask your therapist about how EMDR can help you resolve your trauma issues. Click here for more information.