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What the heck is EMDR, and how can it help with Trauma?

Written by Sierra Robertson

cw: this post discusses trauma and the impacts of trauma as well as giving specific examples of potentially traumatizing scenarios

What is Trauma?

Trauma is a complex emotional and physical response to a distressing event or events that undermine a person’s sense of safety in the world. In response to distressing events or circumstances, the body and mind continue to respond as if they are in danger even after the event has passed. The effects of trauma can remain for weeks, months, or years after the event(s) took place. Sometimes, people can be traumatized by events they can’t even specifically remember. People also experience trauma from simply living in an oppressive capitalist society.

Not every distressing event causes trauma, and not every person that experienced the same distressing event will be traumatized. Events are more likely to be traumatizing when they are sudden, unpredictable, involve a threat to someone’s physical wellbeing, occur in childhood, and if the person experiencing the event does not have a support network. When someone experiences multiple or ongoing situations that are traumatizing, it is called complex trauma. Being traumatized is never a person’s fault, and no person’s experience of trauma is less valid than someone else’s.

What are the effects of trauma?

After someone experiences an event that causes them trauma, reminders of the event in the form of words, sounds, smells, sensations etc. called “triggers” cause the body to re-experience the thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations that the distressing event caused in the moment.

Some common effects of trauma include:

  • Irritability

  • Hypervigilance

  • Depression and/or anxiety

  • Nightmares & Flashbacks

  • Emotional overwhelm

  • Numbness, feeling unreal and/or out of body (disassociation)

  • Insomnia

  • Loss of interest in activities

  • Self-destructive behaviour

  • Feelings of shame and worthlessness

  • Loss of sense of self

These responses are often triggered unconsciously and are a result of our body’s survival instincts which prepare us to fight, flee, fawn, or collapse. Traumatic events also affect the functioning of the brain. When the body’s survival instincts are activated, it supresses other parts of the brain including the hippocampus, which is responsible for processing and storing memories. When the hippocampus is supressed, it is unable to effectively process the traumatic memory. As a result, triggers will continue to return the brain to survival mode, and damaging beliefs about the self and the world are internalized, which can hold people back from happiness and wellbeing.

This is where EMDR therapy comes in…

What is EMDR?

EMDR, also known as “Eye Movement Desensitization and reprocessing” is a type of structured therapy that focuses on processing traumatic memories and replacing unhelpful beliefs stemming from that trauma. EMDR uses “bilateral stimulation”, which are rhythmic left and right movements such as following a ball rolling back and forth across a screen, tapping back and forth on each shoulder, or hearing a beep in one headphone and then the other. This allows the participant to access painful memories without being overwhelmed by distress. From there the participant can “digest” the memory, with their brain holding on to the useful information learned from the memory while letting go of the beliefs and feelings that are negatively affecting their day-to-day life. The unhelpful beliefs from the trauma are replaced with new ones that are more balanced.

Who is EMDR for?

EMDR can be useful for anyone, but it is particularly helpful for people struggling with the effects of complex trauma. However, it can be a long process without a set end date, so it is best for people that are ready and able to commit to therapy on an ongoing basis. EMDR is also hard work. Many people feel tired after sessions, and it can bring up difficult memories and feelings that our brains have worked hard to ignore for a long time. Because of this, it’s useful for people interested in EMDR to have coping strategies in place to help them manage the feelings that may come up between sessions. Therapists can help you build these skills in advance and are also there to support throughout the process.

Does it work?

Since 1990, there have been more than 25 studies finding that EMDR effectively reduces symptoms of PTSD, anxiety, and depression! However, therapy isn’t a one-size fits all experience. While EMDR has been shown to be very effective, each person will have different experiences with it. Talking to your therapist about EMDR can help you figure out if it might be a good fit for you.

If you are interested in EMDR, Stardust Therapeutic Collective can help. Within the collective Emma is trained in and practices EMDR (sliding scale rates available). Alternatively, we’d be happy to recommend other EMDR therapists in your area.

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