By: Andrea Gargano, LCPC, Symmetry Counseling Chicago
Trauma is an event that causes psychological injury or pain. What is traumatic for one person may not be traumatic for another. Trauma is not always necessarily the effects of being in a combat zone, surviving a car accident, or suffering from physical abuse. While it can be those things, trauma shows up in a variety of ways. So it is best not to assume that something is traumatic but instead to look at the effects that the trauma has on the person; namely on their brain and nervous system.
Trauma occurs when a person is unable to make sense of an event and cannot integrate their feelings about it. It takes a toll on the nervous system to the extent that a person cannot process the disturbing event; therefore, they are unable to insert the traumatic memories into adaptive mental structures. People often report feeling stuck or frozen as a result. This is because traumatic memories are stored in the nonverbal region of the brain where they are not accessible by the logical or reasoning parts of the brain. For a more scientific explanation of how trauma affects the brain, click here click here People who have experienced trauma often have difficulty making sense of the traumatic event and the emotions that correspond with it. Some people suffer so much distress from the trauma that they may experience Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which includes symptoms such as flashbacks of the traumatic event, nightmares, inability to recall key features of the traumatic event or negative thoughts about themselves and the world, to name a few. For a complete list of symptoms that meet the criteria for PTSD, click here
One of the most researched therapies for the treatment of trauma is Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing initially developed by Francine Shapiro, Ph.D. in 1987. It consists of an eight-phase treatment approach that includes the use of eye movements or other bilateral stimulation. Through EMDR therapy, people are able to reprocess the traumatic event to where it is no longer psychologically distressing. The memory of the event does not go away, but many people report that after EMDR, when they think of the traumatic event, they feel like an outsider looking in or they feel a great distance between them and the trauma they suffered.
While EMDR is best known for its treatment of trauma, it can also be effective for anxiety, low self-esteem, and negative thinking. Various pathologies arise from earlier life experiences that can influence cognitions, emotions, behavior, and how one views themselves and the world. Present-day events can trigger these early memories that caused psychological distress. For example, if you were made fun of as a kid, you may have developed a concept of yourself that you are not good enough, suffer from low self-esteem, and perhaps your view of the world may be that people are often critical or judgmental. This may then influence your behavior causing you to avoid social situations, which may trigger these negative cognitions and produce a range of symptoms such as anxiety, panic attacks, and isolation. The dysfunctional storage of these early memories causes you to have maladaptive thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. EMDR works to transform the memories so that they can be functionally stored. So the goal in this particular example may be to transform the thought that you are not good enough into a more functional, adaptive thought that you are in fact good enough. In reprocessing the memories through EMDR, you may experience a decrease in the symptoms that used to cause distress and feel less triggered.
After EMDR therapy, many people report a relief from psychological distress and symptoms in a short period of time. It is thought that the reason for this is that unlike traditional talk therapy which has its own unique benefits, EMDR has a physiological basis related to memory storage in the brain that allows people to view disturbing material in a less distressing way. If you are interested in learning more about how EMDR can help you, contact Symmetry Counseling.