Sometimes it is clear that a traumatic event has been the start of someone’s troubles.
But often the triggering traumatic event is not so clear, it may be multiple less severe events are experienced and as a result of this we internalise negative beliefs about ourself or the world, start to adapt our behaviour and adopt unhelpful coping strategies.
Some traumas can be large stand alone incidents such as an accident, disaster or a sexual/violent attack and others arise from ongoing, relentless stress, neglect or abuse as a child, feeling humiliated, shamed or being in abusive relationships.
When these are experienced during our development years they shape our view of the world and ourselves and hence affect our way of coping with life. This type of trauma is know as Developmental Trauma or Complex PTSD.
Because trauma affects us in so many ways, a single approach is less helpful than one which works with you as a whole person. We all have many different parts, in some ways we may cope well with certain aspects of our life while other areas suffer considerably, trauma can affect not only how you think about the world, but your body and its reactions, your relationships, you may struggle to regulate your emotions and have a unhelpful view of yourself and your world.
Recognising the signs
A person who has experienced some form of trauma is likely to feel hypervigilant, alert to the possibility of danger all the time. They often try not to think about the trauma, and may feel quite cut off from the world, possibly being disassociated and avoiding things or places that remind them of their trauma.
A traumatic or disturbing event is usually processed by our minds and over time will become something that happened in the past, a memory that we can recall that may not be particularly pleasant to recall but it no longer holds the emotional energy within our body.
Sometimes however the event gets ‘locked into’ our memory, complete with the original images, thoughts, feelings and body sensations and we remain stuck in this hyper vigilant state overwhelmed with symptoms.
What is EMDR?
EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprogramming) began as a treatment for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and is recommended as a treatment approach for this by NICE (National Institute for Clinical Excellence).
The mind can often heal itself naturally, in the same way as the body does. Much of this natural healing takes place while we are asleep, particularly during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep.
An American therapist called Francine Shapiro developed Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR) in 1987, utilising this natural process in order to successfully treat Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Since then, EMDR has been used to effectively treat a wide range of mental health problems.
What happens when you are traumatised?
Most of the time your body routinely manages new information and experiences without you being aware of it and your emotional wounds heal naturally.
However, sometimes when something out of the ordinary occurs and you are traumatized by an overwhelming event (e.g. a car accident) or by being repeatedly subjected to distress (e.g.childhood neglect), your natural coping mechanism can start to falter and your system becomes overloaded, this can result in disturbing experiences remaining frozen in your brain or being”unprocessed”.
Such unprocessed memories and feelings are stored in the limbic system of your brain in a “live or raw” and emotional form, rather than in a verbal “story”.
Our limbic system maintains traumatic memories in an isolated memory network that is associated with emotions and physical sensations (our primitive brain), and which are disconnected from the brain’s cortex where we use language to store memories (our frontal cortex or intelligent part of our brain).
Because of this the limbic system’s traumatic memories can be continually triggered when you experience events similar to the difficult experiences you have been through. It might be that the memory itself is long forgotten, but the painful feelings such as anxiety, panic, anger or despair are continually triggered in the present.
Your ability to live in the present and learn from new experiences can therefore become inhibited. EMDR helps create the connections between your brain’s memory networks, enabling your brain to process the traumatic memory in a very natural way.
What is an EMDR session like?
After a thorough assessment (this may take several weeks of gathering information) you will be asked specific questions about a memory that is causing you distress.
Using bilateral stimulation with hand held buzzers or Eye movements, the REM part of our sleep will be recreated, this will last for a short while and then stop. You will then be asked to report back on the experiences you have had during each of these sets of bilateral stimulation/eye movements.
Experiences during a session may include changes in thoughts, images and feelings.With repeated sets of bilateral stimulation/eye movements, the memory tends to change in such a way that it loses its painful intensity and simply becomes a neutral memory of an event in the past. Other associated memories may also heal at the same time.
The linking of related memories can lead to a dramatic and rapid improvement in many aspects of your life.
What can EMDR be used for?
In addition to its use for the treatment of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, EMDR has been successfully used to treat:-
anxiety and panic attacks
pain relief, phantom limb pain
self-esteem and performance anxiety
Can anyone benefit from EMDR?
EMDR can accelerate therapy by resolving the impact of your past traumas and allowing you to live more fully in the present. It is not, however, appropriate for everyone. The process is rapid, and any disturbing experiences, if they occur at all, last for a comparatively short period of time.
Nevertheless, you need to be aware of, and willing to experience, the strong feelings and disturbing thoughts, which sometimes occur during sessions.
Will I will remain in control and empowered?
During EMDR treatment, you will remain in control, fully alert and wide-awake. This is not a form of hypnosis and you can stop the process at any time. Throughout the session I will support you and facilitate your own self-healing and intervene as little as possible.
Reprocessing is usually experienced as something that happens spontaneously, and new connections and insights are felt to arise quite naturally from within. As a result, most people experience EMDR as being a natural and very empowering therapy.