If you’re suffering from trauma, or know someone who is, you know how much trouble it can cause. There can be anxiety, panic, anger, sleep problems, and other difficulties. Trauma sufferers may also feel ashamed and misunderstood for not being able to control their reactions.
However, trauma symptoms are not a weakness but simply the result of an outdated defense mechanism—the brain’s way of warning us to stay away from dangerous situations. Because these symptoms can persist for years if not properly treated, trauma sufferers may get the idea that they will just have to live with them. This is simply not true. With the right treatment, complete recovery from trauma is possible.
EMDR: An Effective Treatment
One of the best treatments for trauma today is a technique called EMDR, which stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. It was discovered in the late 1980s by Francine Shapiro, a Ph.D. psychology student in San Diego. She found a simple way to signal the brain to change triggerable trauma memories into normal, non-triggerable memories. It had miraculous results.
In her first published study from 1989, she showed that EMDR significantly reduced anxiety, intrusive thoughts, flashbacks, and insomnia in a group of 22 Vietnam veterans and sexual abuse victims ranging in age from 11 to 53 years. Since then, EMDR has become accepted as one of the primary treatments for trauma all over the world. An article from the 2005 American Journal of Psychiatry analyzing metadata from 26 research studies stated that EMDR was “highly efficacious in reducing PTSD symptoms.”
How It Works
The process of EMDR involves very gentle, alternating left and right side stimulation. This is done using small buzzers, eye movement, or audio. Although the exact reason EMDR works so well is not fully understood, researchers believe it has to do with the fact that when the brain processes normal memories during sleep, activity in the left and right hemispheres oscillates back and forth. The left and right stimulation of EMDR may be “reminding” the brain of its ability to process memories and “jump-starting” the process. When facilitated by a trained practitioner, chains of trauma memories are effortlessly and painlessly converted to non-triggerable memories as the brain sorts them out.
What It Can Do
I have seen clients get what appears to be miraculous relief from all sorts of traumatic issues using EMDR. Symptoms related to physical and sexual abuse, the death of a loved one, and even birth trauma have resolved very quickly. Clients have reported that difficult memories were no longer experienced as painful. They spontaneously had insights that allowed them to be more functional. As their memories resolved, anger outbursts decreased, anxiety and depressive symptoms were reduced, and sleep improved. These results are possible whether the trauma is is mild or severe.
A Personal Experience
My personal experience with EMDR showed me the power it can have with lesser issues. I was working at a mental health agency and noticed that I became very anxious when it came time to turn in my timecard. I was sometimes late, which caused my supervisor to get irritated at me. I was my doing my EMDR training course, and I decided to address this issue when it was my turn to get an EMDR session. Many different memories and emotions surfaced, some from over 40 years ago!
After the session, I felt calmer, and when I went back to work, I no longer experienced any anxiety connected with my timecard. My issue with the supervisor disappeared, too.
Importance of Proper Treatment
One of the biggest obstacles in treating trauma is the client’s sense that their situation is never going to change. There may also be a natural resistance to any kind of change, even positive change. They may not understand how trauma works and be interpreting their symptoms as a personal failure. There may also be other dynamics at play that support their symptoms.
For these reasons, it is important to view EMDR as part of a careful therapeutic approach, one which takes into consideration the client’s overall stability, readiness to change, and level of information about trauma.
For more information about trauma and EMDR, visit DavidSeagullTherapy.com. David Seagull, LISW, is a therapist in Fairfield and a member of the International Society for Trauma & Dissociation.