Psychological Trauma and EMDR at Amaranth CounsellingEye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) was developed by Francine Shapiro in 1989 and is an evidence based treatment for clients who have experienced psychological trauma. This might include being involved in an accident, or suffering an assault or rape but it can actually be used for any incident that the individual found terrifying. It is particularly effective in the treatment of Post traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
In order to understand how EMDR works it is important to understand the nature of psychological trauma.
If we first consider a physical trauma; this is a wound or injury and when sustained the body will immediately begin a healing process that leads to the ultimate restoration of health, we may be left with a scar or a weakness in the area of injury but we get about lives quite well.
What is Trauma?
A psychological trauma is wound or injury to the mind. When we experience this type of trauma the brain also goes into the process of healing, we process the trauma in our heads by talking about it, dreaming about it and over time it gradually works its way into our brains as a probably very unpleasant memory that we don’t often think about but we live with it.
The psychological trauma may come in different forms; we may experience a single one-off trauma like an assault, a rape or a car accident. Even hearing, seeing or being a bystander at a traumatic event might be sufficient to traumatize us. Trauma can also be cumulative in that we experience many psychological traumas over time, this would include domestic violence, childhood abuse and severe bullying.
Some people process trauma without psychological intervention but for a substantial number of people the event is not properly processed. It’s a bit like a stuck CD, the song can’t progress and the same bit gets repeated over and over. When the trauma isn’t properly processed, it manifests as nightmares and flashbacks where the person may reexperience the trauma as though it were currently happening.
People also avoid anything that might remind them of the event (triggers), so they may not drive the route of the accident or not want to visit the area where they were attacked (however sometimes that cannot be avoided). As a result they become isolated and withdrawn, if they are inadvertantly confronted with the reminder they may feel anxious and experience a flashback or a panic attack. Since the person is terrified of returning to, or being reminded of, the traumatic event they become hyper-vigilant; they are constantly in a state of alert and looking for dangers where none really exist, as a result they don't sleep well, they can't relax or concentrate on a task. The person may eventually find that they can function reasonably well and only have flashbacks and nightmares if they are triggered.
So how does EMDR work?Well I mentioned the fact that when we have PTSD it may feel like the traumatic event is stuck at the forefront of the mind and no matter how hard the person tries they cannot integrate it into their experience. If they try and talk about it (as one might expect in counselling) then the process of talking about it may trigger the fear, and the body's alarm system is activated and panic ensues and the person experiences an abreaction. Cousnelling will help, an experienced trauma therapist will know how to help a person handle the abreaction and over time the symptoms will diminish.
EMDR is a different approach; when doing EMDR the therapist stimulates the thinking part of the brain by moving their hands in front of the client and getting them to follow the movements with their eyes; at the same time the therapist invites them to remember the traumatic event. The significance of the eye movements are not really fully understood; some say they imitate REM sleep where we process information during sleep. Others suggest that we shuttle information from the right hand side of the brain (where trauma is held) to the left hand side and this helps to make new neural connections. Finally others sugest that the eye movements keep the client in the here and now while they remember the past.
It is called dual stimulation and the brain processes the memory with the thinking part engaged while remembering the trauma.
As this happens, the memory and experience become less intense (desensitisation) and distress levels will drop until the memory is no longer distressing. A client once described it as though an intense image melted away.
The memory is then reprocessed in a more positive way by allowing the client to hold the memory while thinking a positive affirmation. The person has processed the memory and it should no longer cause distress and they no longer respond to triggers. It probably sounds very strange but it works very effectively. I have seen its effectiveness and clients have said they are astounded that the incident that has blighted their life no longer seems to bother them.
There is strong research evidence confirming its efficacy and with a single event trauma (e.g. an accident or an assault) it is very effective. It can also be used to treat phobias and anxiety and long term complex trauma such as childhood abuse; however in the latter situation it may take longer.
If you have experienced a traumatic event and are suffering as a result get in touch with me at Amaranth Counselling.