Let’s talk about trauma – how it affects our brains and why EMDR treatment can help us move past it.
How Trauma Affects our Brains
When traumatic events happen to us – whether it’s big traumas, like life-threatening events, or little traumas, like our friends laughing at us – our brains process these memories, moving them to long-term storage, so that we can move past them. This processing often happens during REM sleep and makes the past feel like the past.
However, trauma can overwhelm this system when huge amounts of emotionally laden information enter our brain and we struggle to process it. Instead, the information becomes stuck in our emotional brain limbic system and each time we are in similar situations, our brain triggers, sending us into panic mode, telling us something is wrong. Our brain doesn’t understand that this is a new situation, but instead believes that the same, horrible event, is occurring again in the present. For example, if I was in a car accident driving home from work on a rainy day, the next time I am driving home from work on a rainy day, my brain might trigger and I may experience the fears, sensations, and/or flashbacks from the car accident. My brain can’t distinguish the past from the present and my stress level skyrockets. In this way, trauma imprisons our brain, forcing it to repeat the past over and over.
How EMDR Can Help – Leveraging Our Brain’s Self-Healing Capability
If you observe somebody sleeping during the REM stage, you will notice that their eyes move back and forth, back and forth. Scientists believe these eye movements facilitate our brain’s memory processing, allowing us to clean up memories, including traumas.
In the mid-1980s, Francine Shapiro, an American psychologist, began to wonder whether we could use this self-healing mechanism to help trauma survivors. She began experimenting and noticed that highly distressing events could be processed successfully by thinking about the traumatic event while mimicking the eye movements associated with REM sleep. She called this technique Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy (EMDR).
When therapists work with EMDR, we encourage clients to recall the traumatic memory in the safe therapeutic space and then encourage the whole brain to work together using eye movements (or other bilateral stimulation), while asking targeted questions. This process connects the emotional brain that struggles to distinguish the past from the present with the logical brain that knows the past is in the past.
Trauma and EMDR – A Case Study
Let me give you a strange example to show you how this fits together. Long-ago, one of my clients was really traumatized and was diagnosed with PTSD, depression, anxiety, and borderline personality disorder. Anytime she saw the colour purple, she experienced such high anxiety it made her feel sick. She knew this was strange and that the colour purple wasn’t dangerous, but she couldn’t stop her nervousness and her body’s reaction – rapid heart rate, sweaty palms, and so forth. When we started EMDR, she began to remember being abused as a six or seven year old girl. And guess what? She remembered that the abusers room was purple. Her brain’s reaction began to make sense. Every time she saw the colour purple, her brain took her back to that abuser’s room and she was that scared, terrorized six or seven year old little girl again. Her emotional brain didn’t know 30+ years had passed since the memory remained unprocessed. Her brain was sending her messages, telling her she was unsafe. With EMDR, she successfully processed these memories, calming her emotional brain and connecting it to her logical brain, so that the colour purple no longer felt unsafe for her.
A Hopeful Message
I have practiced EMDR for well over a decade and have worked with people who have experienced all kinds of trauma – from childhood abuse and/or neglect, to domestic violence, to first responders, like police officers. Many of these clients had tried other kinds of talk therapies and did not heal. They began blaming themselves, thinking, “I’m not good enough. I learned all these techniques and tools, but I can’t use them in my life.” But talk therapies tend to target the prefrontal cortex (logical brain), rather than our limbic systems (emotional brain), where neuroscience shows that traumatic memories are stored.
It is not your fault and you do not need to suffer. EMDR is a brain-based, scientific technique that targets the limbic system (our emotional brain) and can help you process your trauma easily and efficiently. Once your memories are processed and your emotional and logical brains work together, symptoms will remit and you can learn and use new tools from other therapies successfully. But first, we need to clean up the emotional mess that trauma stored in your brain.
So, feel hopeful. No matter what kind of trauma you’ve experienced, trauma does not need to be your prison.
Gulin Aydin, MSW,RSW