On a perfectly warm summer afternoon in 2001, I was splashing around in the pool with my best friend when my Mom abruptly told me that my friend had to go home early. Fast forward 30 minutes to me lying in my closet crying, thrashing, screaming, “How can you do this to me!?” My Mom had just told me that she was moving out of the house and separating from my Dad. Having the carpet pulled out from under me left me feeling helpless, abandoned, and broken. As the years went on, rationally I knew that I was supported, loved and good enough but that could not undo the damage already done.
Brain imaging scans show that a traumatic experience rewires our brains! On that summer afternoon, my 12-year-old brain rewired to protect me, and I developed severe anxiety. Maybe if I just over plan for everything and live in constant fear, the carpet will always remain under my feet! After a distressing event, you may begin looking through a lens of fear or helplessness that affects your day to day experiences like mine did.
What is Trauma?
My clients are often surprised to learn that they have endured several traumas after I educate them on its definition. A trauma is any distressing or disturbing event that overwhelms an individual and affects their ability to cope and may result in feelings of helplessness, panic, and numbness.
Traditionally we may associate trauma with natural disasters or physical and sexual abuse. You can add difficult transitions, bullying, emotional neglect and more to that list because there are so many factors that contribute to how a person processes a painful experience. Social support, temperament, frequency of exposure to the event, and relationships with attachment figures all affect an individual’s resiliency to trauma. As a shy only child with few friends, poor self-esteem, and an already fragile attachment to both parents, I was highly vulnerable to process this event as a trauma. Hear me loud and clear – Healing from past pain is not a matter of willpower, strength, or ability to pull yourself up by your bootstraps!
Attached to a trauma are images, uncomfortable feelings, and core misbeliefs such as, “I’m not good enough”, “I should have known better”, “I cannot trust anyone” etc. Those remaining feelings and beliefs are residue in your system that can be cleaned up! One of the most effective therapeutic techniques for cleaning up that residue or healing memories is called Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). Do not let the name intimidate you – stick with me here and I will dig into why EMDR might be right for you.
Reprocessing Past Memories with EMDR
EMDR is a therapeutic technique created by Francine Shapiro in the 1990’s designed to relieve the symptoms associated with trauma by reprocessing painful memories. The client focuses on images, beliefs, feelings, and body sensations related to the memory while their eyes move back forth following the therapists’ fingers. These ‘rounds’ of memory recall and eye movement are kept short and the client briefly tells the therapist what came up after each round ends. This is repeated until the client reports they no longer have any distress associated with the memory. It is an incredibly powerful process, but I understand if you are wary. I didn’t buy it until after my EMDR training when I saw my clients’ brains naturally heal themselves right in front of me!
One theory explains that short sets of eye movement keeps the client grounded in the present moment which allows them to digest the whole memory without getting overwhelmed. The eye movement may also replicate the eye movement that we experience during REM sleep. REM is the phase of sleep where we process short term memories into long term memories. Painful memories can get stuck in our short-term memory and that is what leads to symptoms of trauma. However, if a traumatic memory is fully digested and stored in long term memory, we can feel neutral towards it and associate positive thoughts with it; such as, “I did the best I could”, “I am good enough” or “I can learn from this!”
Is EMDR Right For Me?
Now that you understand a little more about how EMDR can help you heal the past and create a new lens for the present moment, how do you know if EMDR is right for you? Read through the list below for indications that you may benefit from chatting with an EMDR therapist:
- Feeling anxious, constant worry or experiencing panic attacks
- Feeling numb, zoning out, trouble recalling significant events in your life
- History or current issues with Eating Disorder or Substance Abuse behavior
- Cycles of unhealthy or ‘toxic’ relationships
- Flashbacks or nightmares
- Intrusive thoughts
- Loss of Interest in activities, low mood, depression
- Agitation, irritation, hostility
- Low self-esteem, poor boundaries, people pleasing tendencies
Keep an eye out in the next coming weeks for another post that digs deeper into the symptoms and behaviors associated with trauma. For now, I hope you find comfort in knowing that it’s common to experience these symptoms and possible to heal from them!