It's scientifically proven that our brains change when we go through a traumatic event. Usually, we can naturally recover from the distress. Sometimes though our fight, flight, or freeze response can prevent us from being able to process the trauma without a little bit of help. Here is a little lesson on how trauma affects our brains.
This is your brain on trauma!
The Amygdala is our alarm system for stress to protect us from danger. During a traumatic event that activity increases. Normally this will start but then stop once the event is over. Sometimes though, this area of the brain stays overactive which leads to feelings of anxiety or being in danger.
The Hippocampus helps to calm the Amygdala. It's the area of the brain that assists with learning and memory storage, including remembering how to feel safe or assess when there is danger. During trauma the Hippocampus shrinks which weakens the cues it send to calm the Amygdala. This can cause flashbacks and other confusion around the traumatic memory.
There is also Prefrontal Cortex involvement. This area of the brain manages our thoughts, behavior, and control over our emotional responses to events. The Prefrontal Cortex helps send signals so we can determine if a situation is safe or dangerous. Trauma can shrink this area and weaken those signals allowing negative emotions from the trauma to take over our reasoning ability.
So basically when trauma happens, our Amygdala activity increases and ups our anxiety. Our Hippocampus shrinks and stops being able to calm our Amygdala response and we start to get confused. Then, the Prefrontal Cortex shrinks and we are unable to control our emotional responses and logical reasoning goes right out the window. Most of the time our brain is capable of righting itself shortly after the initial shock and we can properly think about and process the situation. Other times this is the perfect storm that creates Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and our brains get stuck in this messed up thinking pattern. That's where EMDR therapy comes in.
EMDR or Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing therapy is an interactive psychotherapy technique that has been proven to be greatly effective treatment for PTSD and trauma related mental illness. During EMDR therapy sessions, you recall a specific traumatic memory while the therapist directs your eye movements by having you watch a light bar, moving their hand back and forth, and/or you hold little buzzers in your hands that alternate vibrations. These things are used because it's often less emotionally upsetting to recall these memories when your attention is diverted. You also will have established a "safe place" or thought to go to if you become too overwhelmed and your therapist is right there with you to help talk you down if need be. Over time, the intense negative psychological response that the traumatic memory has on you is lessened.
I have reprocessed several traumatic memories using EMDR and all I can say is that it works, and it's really weird how it works. Here's an example:
I had some very negative underlying feelings which caused me to think something was wrong with me and that people viewed me differently. It was in a really negative way though, not a "hey, I'm weird and I'm going to embrace it" kind of way. It was more of a "I'm such a freak and everyone knows it and secretly laughs at me and thinks horrible things about me all the time" kind of way so I saw myself as this awful person and a total failure at life. It was very bad and very self defeating, but I was stuck in a cycle of this negative thought pattern and it was affecting not only how I felt about myself but also how I viewed everything else in my life.
My therapist asked me to think back to the first time I ever felt that way. I remembered a particular incident from childhood that was very vivid and had always bothered me my whole life. She had me focus on that memory and briefly explain it. When I say briefly, I mean very briefly. That's one thing I really like about EMDR therapy. Most of the work is done in your own head as you think about things. You don't necessarily have to say much out loud.
As I thought about the memory, I held onto small very mildly vibrating buzzers. (It's for the sensation only, not shock purposes.) She asked me how disturbing the memory was on a scale, and how it made me feel. As I thought about that she turned on the buzzers. For about 1 minute I just thought about the memory as the vibrations alternated between my hands. She stopped the buzzers and instructed me to take a deep breath. She asked me what I was feeling. I told her that I felt bad and described the memory with some very specific detail as if I was seven years old all over again. She said okay, think about that, and she started the buzzers again. Again, I thought as the vibrations alternated between my hands. This went on several more times, but what was happening was really fascinating. I started to think differently about the memory. I started seeing it from a different and more appropriate view point. I even started to remember the details very differently than I had originally. It wasn't like everything changed, it was as if more information became clearer to me which made the whole memory make more sense. It wasn't just about the bad feelings I remembered anymore. I was finally seeing the whole picture.
When it was all over I had gone from the memory being around a 7 on a scale of 10 being the most disturbing, to a 0 because it wasn't disturbing at all anymore. I realized that I had interpreted the event incorrectly all those years ago and I felt totally different about it now. The way I processed the situation no longer had me stuck in a negative cycle of thinking and it helped to change my feelings about myself. I didn't see myself as being inept or wrong or even that I was some kind of misfit anymore. It was an incredibly freeing experience and I felt lighter. The way I remembered the event was clearer, yet somehow further away. It didn't stand out as a bad thing anymore. It was just another benign memory that could be filed away in my head with all the rest of my benign memories.
I have had this kind of success with a lot of old memories. Reprocessing them somehow changes the way we view more recent situations also. When traumatic things happen we can get stuck in exactly that moment so everything we feel is raw and fresh and we can't always process through it in a healthy way because of all those things that happen to our brains. EMDR allows you to step out of the memory, but look back and see it from a little different viewpoint so your brain can get back on track and process it correct way.
EMDR doesn't work on every random memory we have either. It's not like brainwashing to make you think something that isn't true or from a viewpoint that your therapist wants you to see. It only works on events that you have an improper and unhealthy response to. My therapist explained it like this - if you have a memory of someone hurting you, yelling and screaming at your or even physically abusing you in some way, and your emotional response to that is "I deserved that, I'm unworthy of love because I'm a bad person", that is an unhealthy and incorrect response. That memory can be reprocessed using EMDR. But, if your emotional response to that same memory is "I did not deserve to be treated that way. I am hurt and angry because I should have been treated better. It wasn't my fault and the other person was wrong for what they did", that is a healthy and correct response. You can't do anything to reprocess that memory because that's how you should feel.
There can be some side effects to EMDR therapy, but it's not really anything worse than what you would already be dealing with. Things like nightmares, overthinking and anxiety are most common. Because working through trauma cannot always happen in one 50 minute session with your therapist, it can take several sessions to fully reprocess a memory. I can assure you though, it's worth it. You can feel the burden lightening off your shoulders and chest as your brain starts to think about things in a healthier way. You physically feel better after it's all over, which doesn't always happen after regular "talk therapy". I don't always like revisiting my past. It's painful and emotional and sometimes makes me feel very out of control. That's why I like EMDR, because it puts me back in control. It takes all of those bad feelings and makes me realize I don't have to feel like that anymore. I see things much clearer and it gets me out of that spinning cycle of negative thinking.
Don't take my word for it though. Healthline has a lot of great information about EMDR. HERE is a link to an article so you can learn more. There was also a really great episode of Grey's Anatomy that shows the character "Jo" going through EMDR therapy to reprocess the trauma of her mother leaving her when she was a child. It was quite an impressive and accurate description of EMDR and believe me, I was looking to find flaws in it. It's Season 16 Episode Five entitled "Breathe Again" if you want to watch it.
One more time for the people in the back...if you have PTSD you may very well benefit from EMDR Therapy. Feeling the things listed here is not a good way to live. There is hope and there is healing. This concludes today's lesson.