Treating the Effects of Trauma with EMDR

Introducing Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)

by Sarah Burkhart, MA, LPC

The news lately has been full of horrors: mass shootings, international terrorism, police brutality, brutalizing of police. The reality of trauma in our world has been impossible to escape in recent months. But when it affects you personally in some way, you are stuck trying to figure out how to deal with trauma – how to work through it and move on. And it helps to know of tools that are at your disposal.

To start, we need a working definition of trauma: any experience that makes us feel both threatened and out of control of our own safety. So, for instance, the experience of a car accident where you are fearful for your life and simultaneously helpless to protect yourself would certainly fall under the trauma heading. Likewise, suffering from a debilitating illness, abuse by a parent or partner, or loss of a loved one could all constitute life traumas.

Ultimately, however, it is not the nature of the experience itself, but our emotional reaction that allows us to use the trauma label for a given experience. Two people may be in the same car accident and come away with very different reactions. One may experience no long-term debilitating effects while the other feels a heightened sense of stress, or hypervigilance, has terrible nightmares about the crash, and periodically feels vividly as if he was reliving the crash all over again. If these symptoms persist, we would say that the second person is probably suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD.

Over time, scientists have learned that trauma affects the brain in particular ways. In his book, The Body Keeps the Score, Bessel Van Der Kolk lays out the results of brain scans performed on PTSD-diagnosed patients while they were re-experiencing a traumatic event. He found, unsurprisingly, that the amygdala (which is the brain’s fear center, regulating the fight or flight response to danger) was active during this re-experiencing. Even more interesting, he found that a region called Broca’s area was deactivated. Broca’s area is one of the brain’s speech centers, which allows us to translate thoughts and feelings into words. With a temporarily malfunctioning Broca’s area, trauma survivors are unable to articulate the horror of their experience. What’s more, Van Der Kolk found that the whole left side of the brain slowed down during this traumatic re-experiencing. The left hemisphere is the center for logic, sequencing, and organization. So not only do traumatic experiences leave people literally speechless, but they are also left feeling scattered and disorganized, divorced from the logic of cause-and-effect sequencing that the left hemisphere would normally provide.

Counselors and mental health practitioners, then, have a unique challenge in treating PTSD. I, for one, regularly describe my job as “talk therapy”. But how do you offer helpful talk therapy to a person whose experience falls outside the realm of language? How do you use logic and reason to talk through a period of time that has never been successfully organized into a logical sequence of events? As we learn more about the nature of trauma and the brain’s responses, the mental health community is building an arsenal of effective treatments. I cannot give an exhaustive account here of all the treatment options that are out there, which is good news – there are just too many of them. I, however, have chosen to become trained Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, a technique that has been shown to be effective through almost thirty years of research.

The creator of EMDR therapy, Francine Shapiro, stumbled across this technique during a walk in the park when she noticed that her emotional response to a distressing memory was lessened as she moved her eyes back and forth. Since that initial experience, she has streamlined EMDR into a treatment protocol that has been shown to successfully treat PTSD symptoms in multiple controlled studies. The protocol involves very little talking. Instead, the client is asked to focus on a traumatic memory while moving her eyes back and forth, following either a light or the therapist’s fingers. Shapiro theorizes that EMDR accesses the brain’s natural healing process, allowing traumatic memories to be reprocessed into what Shapiro calls an “adaptive resolution”. We can compare this process to the skin’s natural ability to heal itself. If the wound is small and manageable (not traumatic), the skin will heal itself spontaneously much like the mind is able to process and manage low-level (not traumatic) stressors. However, if the would is large (traumatic), there may be some outside interventions required to help with the same natural healing process. Stitches or steri strips give the skin a “boost” in the direction of healing so that it can take over with the same natural processes that worked so well in the non-traumatic example. We can think of EMDR as mental stitches. It gives the brain the same sort of boost in the direction of healing, allowing natural processes to then take over.

EMDR has been shown to be effective not only for PTSD but also for phobias, panic disorders, sexual dysfunction, chemical dependency, performance anxiety, and chronic pain. Research results, in many instances, have been quite dramatic. In a 1997 study of female rape victims, 90% of subjects were found to no longer meet the full PTSD criteria after only three EMDR sessions (compared with 12% in the control group) (Rothbaum, 1997). EMDR has been found to be particularly effective for those who have suffered a single-event trauma, such as a car accident or sexual assault. In another 1997 study, 100% of single-trauma victims were found to no longer meet the PTSD criteria after an average of 6.5 EMDR sessions (Marcus, Marquis, and Sakai, 1997).

If you would like to learn more about EMDR or would like to discuss whether this could be an effective treatment option for you, I encourage you to contact me. I will be more than happy to chat, brainstorm, answer questions and ask them right back. I am excited to be able to offer this tool to those suffering from the effects of trauma. And I am thrilled to have the opportunity to see firsthand the healing effect it can have on clients’ lives.

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