What You Should Know Before Starting EMDR
Part One- Trauma
EMDR (short for eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) is a treatment for trauma developed by Francine Shapiro in the 1980s. This process involves the client doing eye movements (or other bilateral stimulation like tapping) as directed by a trained therapist while recalling distressing events with the goal of healing your mind. If you are reading this then it is likely that you have considered EMDR as a treatment for yourself or someone you know. In this 3-part series I will not attempt to explain how EMDR works or what your EMDR sessions will look like. Instead, I would like to touch on a few key topics in EMDR that will help you understand the process. This information can help you make decisions on if EMDR may be helpful for you and can give you some context as you discuss EMDR with your therapist.
EMDR was a treatment developed to treat trauma, so the first important question is: what is trauma? When many people hear the word trauma, it may conjure images of individual traumatic incidents. This is one way that trauma develops. One single incident can overwhelm a person and their normal coping mechanisms. In an intense situation like that, such as an assault, the brain is flooded with intense emotions that tell the body that this is a life or death situation. This leads to the “flight, flight, or freeze” response. In this escalated state, the brain is unable to process information in an adaptive, typical way.
Being in a traumatic situation does not always lead to a person feeling traumatized. The exact same situation will affect different people in different ways. Being affected differently by intense situations does not make one person better or worse than another. Sometimes, after an intense experience, a person may have lingering disturbing memories or reminders in the world around them that bring up similar feelings. When present situations or prompts activate those past memories, the brain can bring a person back to that traumatic incident. When this happens, the experience is relived as if it is happening again, including all the intense emotions and sensations. Once the brain goes to that place, the “flight, flight, or freeze” response kicks in and the brain is again unable to cope and adapt like the person may be used to.
Single incidents are not the only way that the brain can form these reactions. Distressing events are often remembered and processed in the brain with higher emotions, which make them memorable. Repeated exposure to these heightened emotions influences the way a person sees themselves and the world. This can work for or against a person. A child may have a support system that reinforces the belief that people are mostly good or that they are capable. On the other hand, a child may repeatedly receive the message, whether intentionally or unintentionally, that they are worthless or that the world is not a safe place for them. These messages lead to core beliefs about one’s self. Most people have some positive beliefs and some negative ones. When these repeated experiences or messages lead to a negative belief that prevents them from feeling okay and living the way they want to, that is trauma. In this way, a person does not have to consider themselves to be highly traumatized for a trauma response to affect their lives in undesirable ways.
Both single traumatic incidents and repeated more subtle incidents can have the same result. For example, imagine that two people are asked to meet with their intimidating supervisor. One person may have an experience where they were assaulted and felt trapped, and the other received a persistent message that they are worthless. They may each feel differently, but when the brain makes the association between the present and past trauma, both experiences can lead to the same “fight, flight, or freeze” response that may seem disproportionate from an outside perspective, but which makes perfect sense when taking into consideration what is happening inside the brain. EMDR can be used to address both single traumatic incidents and negative beliefs about oneself that are hard to tie to any specific incident.
In the next part of this 3 part series, I will discuss these negative core beliefs further and talk about what that means for the EMDR process.
This article was provided by RaeAnn Teichert; therapist at the Center for Couples and Families.
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