Recovering from Trauma with EMDR

As many of you know, Excelsior’s Triumphant Faces Gala is coming up next week on Friday, February 20, 2015. A portion of proceeds from this fundraiser will support Excelsior girls who have been victims of Human Trafficking and Trauma. Accordingly, we have been dedicating our blog to informational articles about Human Trafficking and Trauma as well as specific therapies that help girls recover from these heartbreaking experiences. This week, we will discuss the therapy, EMDR, and how it helps people overcome trauma.


Recovering from Trauma with EMDR
By: Christy Pennington, M.A., L.P.C.

What is Trauma?

Per Barbara Maiberger, a leading therapist and trainer in EMDR in Boulder, CO, trauma is “any past experience that one perceives as negative and that impacts your present life.  It creates extreme stress in the body and mind”.  Trauma can be perceived as horrific, helpless to prevent, and threatening to either your survival or the survival of others or it can be when something that happens, large or small, that leaves you with a feeling of stress that you are unable to process for some reason.

There are two things to remember about the brain and trauma. First, we know that the right side of the brain controls the left side of the body, and vice versa. Interestingly enough, one side of the brain also controls our emotions while the other controls our rational thoughts.  Sometimes when trauma occurs, the two sides stop communicating and don’t support one another as they should.

Second, we know that our brain can lock away sensitive information and/or feelings in an effort to protect us from the pain and suffering that information can cause. Stressful information can be locked in the amygdala, sometimes referred to as the primitive brain – a part of the brain we use during crisis, but rarely access during everyday living. Trauma tends to get “stuck” there which can be helpful initially after experiencing a traumatic situation. However, locking away too much information, or specific chains of information, can come back later to cause problems for people.

EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization And Reprocessing) and Trauma

So how does EMDR help people deal with trauma? How can moving your eyes, listening to sounds or processing physical sensations help relieve symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder?  Well, no one really knows for sure, but the bottom line is that EMDR is the leading evidence-based practice in helping thousands who struggle with flashbacks, nightmares and disturbing thoughts and images.  EMDR is so effective that it is endorsed by both the US Department of Defense and the American Psychiatric Association. Find out more about EMDR here.

EMDR allows the brain to take the client where they otherwise would resist.  The bilateral stimulation used in EMDR by following movements of fingers or lights along a light board,  sounds via earphones, and tactile stimulation such as tapping on a client’s back of their hands or having them hold a pair of “buzzers” allows the brain to slip into a type of REM state.   This allows your client’s mind to float to where it needs to, unlocking pieces of the trauma that have remained problematic.  Your client then processes the information allowing the material to become less sensitive, and allows them to either come to understand something they previously hadn’t and/or be able to reprocess the information in a way that they were not able to before.

Another piece of EMDR that is remarkable is that as opposed to other “talk therapies” EMDR does not necessarily need the client to be able to put the traumatic concept to words.  Trauma is related to primitive emotions.  Trauma often simply cannot be talked about.  When in an EMDR session, the information that can be processed is not only verbal, but it can be a picture in the client’s mind, a body sensation, a ruminating thought, a smell, and even something as simple as a representative color.  In EMDR, this information is often key to unlocking the pieces of trauma clients hold on to as they simply are not able to explain what they are thinking or feeling.  In EMDR, this simply is not necessary.

EMDR now is not only being used to treat PTSD, Panic attacks, Complicated grief, Dissociative, disorders, Disturbing memories, Phobias, Pain disorders, Performance anxiety, stress reduction, Addictions, Sexual and/or Physical abuse, Body dysmorphic disorders and Personality Disorders.  Clients report widely that with EMDR treatment, their stressors and triggers seem further in the past and harder to focus on. What follows after this distancing is a reduction in the associated emotional levels. In other words, the traumatic memory stays, but its power has been diminished.