At the root of many disorders – anxiety, depression, food issues and addiction – often lies trauma. That can be “small t” trauma, meaning relatively small moments of shame, embarrassment, fear, failure or rejection that all too often got overlooked. Or it can be “big T” Trauma, meaning trauma stemming from childhood neglect, sexual or physical abuse, rape, accidents, natural disasters or war.
WHAT HAPPENS IN THE BODY DURING TRAUMA?
Irrespective of the type of trauma, the body responds in the same way. It tightens and braces in an effort to protect itself and ward off danger. As a short-term survival strategy it’s an intelligent response because the more you tighten the less you feel. However, the tightening and contraction actually prevent the trauma from processing; the distressed energy ends up getting frozen and locked into the body.
WHAT HAPPENS IN THE BRAIN DURING TRAUMA
During an overwhelming event, the mind’s natural coping mechanisms become overloaded and disturbing experiences can remain frozen in your brain and “unprocessed”. Such unprocessed memories and feelings are stored in the limbic system of your brain in a “raw” and emotional form, rather than in a verbal “story” mode. This limbic system maintains traumatic memories in isolated memory networks, associated with emotions and physical sensations, and disconnected from the brain’s cortex where we use language to store memories.
The limbic system’s traumatic memories can be continually triggered when you experience events similar to the difficult experiences you have been through. Often the memory itself is long forgotten, but the painful feelings such as anxiety, anger or despair are continually triggered in the present.
THE EFFECTS OF TRAUMA
In its more advanced stages, trauma manifests as panic attacks, flashbacks, hypervigilance, sleep disturbance or others symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. But it can also simmer under the surface in more subtle ways; a disconnection with the body; a tendency to “live from the head”; an inability to relax; a chronic tension in the stomach or chest area.
WHAT IS EMDR?
EMDR is a an acronym for Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing, a form of therapy that heals trauma by mimicking the mind’s natural healing mechanisms which take place during sleep, particularly during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. In the treatment, you’re asked to identify and then focus on a particular traumatic memory. At the same time, eye movements, similar to those that occur during REM sleep, are recreated by asking you to watch the therapists’s finger moving backwards and forwards across your visual field. Sometimes other forms of bilateral stimulation, such as alternating audio tones via headphones or alternating tapping via hand-held pulsers are used instead.
With repeated eye movements, the traumatic memory tends to change and lose its painful intensity. It becomes a neutral memory of an event in the past. Interestingly once you’ve reduced the discomfort, anxiety or inadequacy linked to your key or “touchstone” memories, the more that reduction of distress permeates all aspects of your life.
WHAT ISSUES DOES EMDR TREAT?
In addition to its use for the treatment of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, EMDR has been successfully used to treat:
- Anxiety and panic attacks
- Sleep Problems
- Self Esteem and Performance Anxiety
- Complicated Grief
- Eating Disorders
- Pain Relief
To understand what actually happens during an EMDR session, watch this video: