“Changing the memories that form the way we see ourselves also changes the way we view others. Therefore, our relationships, job performance, what we are willing to do or are able to resist, all move in a positive direction.” ~Francine Shapiro (EMDR Founder)
What is EMDR trauma therapy and what does it do? What is trauma anyway??
The funny thing about trauma is that unless you’ve been formally diagnosed with PTSD, you probably don’t think of yourself as having a “trauma” history. I’ve worked with some of the worst cases of childhood abuse you could dream up. But do you think those clients came to my office saying “I have a trauma background?” NO! For them it’s just life. It was hard, but it was what they had to deal with. Some people had it worse than them, some better, but they got through it. I say this, because we don’t often think of events from our past as “traumatic.” So how do we define trauma?
When I refer to trauma, I am referring to memories from your past that have not been fully processed in your brain. They stay stuck in the brain’s emotional center or the limbic system. These memories, when triggered, cause all kinds of symptoms like anxiety, depression, unhealthy coping (like addictions), anger outbursts, low-self esteem, performance anxiety, etc.. They unconsciously “drive the bus” of our life without us even realizing it.
Metaphorically, our brains work a bit like our digestive systems. When everything is working properly, we don’t experience symptoms. But when we eat a heavy meal or we have a stomach virus or we are stressed, we can have any number of digestive symptoms. We need help moving our undigested stuff out! EMDR can be thought of as taking an emotional laxative. It moves things through and helps us get on with our lives as they were meant to be lived, without all the blocks that keep us stuck.
Our brains are similar. If all goes well, the events of our life are fully “digested” or processed likely during REM Sleep. But if an event happens to us and the emotional load is too big or it happens to us on a day we skipped breakfast or we are coming down with a cold, who knows? Could be any number of reasons, but our memory doesn’t process through the normal channels. It “gets stuck” in the emotional center of our brain (the limbic system or the amydala). When we have memories that are undigested we “get triggered” by things in our environment. I’m sure you’ve heard stories of war vetarans who have returned from war but hear the sound of a helicopter and hit the deck thinking they are under fire again. This is a very graphic example of what “being triggered” looks like. The memory is unprocessed because the “emotional load” of being under fire is obviously too much for most people to handle. The sound of the helicopter (or any other innocuous stimluli) triggers a limbic fight or flight response and puts him into a primitive part of his brain that cannot decipher time and place. This memory then begins to “drive the bus” of his life as he avoids situations that might put him into contact with triggering stimuli.
This is a clear case of PTSD. But what about the rest of us? The truth is we all “get triggered” by innocuous stimuli in our environment all the time. Have you ever had an experience where you became really upset and couldn’t figure out why? Your head told you “You shouldn’t be upset about that little thing” but your emotions were very intense nonetheless. It feels like there is a split between your heart and your head in these moments. EMDR helps to bring your intellectual side and your emotional side into greater harmony with each other, so that you can respond to situations rather than react.
So then what is EMDR?? EMDR condenses years of therapy into months…
EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. It’s a terrible name. She admits she wishes she would’ve named it something else in her very helpful an highly recommended book called “Getting Past Your Past” by EMDR founder Francine Shapiro. EMDR is a cutting edge treatment that changes people’s lives but I find that where I live and practice (in Solana Beach, CA) people just have never heard of it. I can’t tell you how many times I have been at a little league game or mom’s night out telling people I do EMDR only to be met with blank stares. It’s a shame really, because so many people could live much better lives with this treatment. I have seen many people literally transform because of this kind of healing work. I’d love to help you determine if it could work for you too. I can usually tell within a few sessions if you are a good fit for this method, so you don’t waste a lot of time and money for nothing!
Here’s what the process is like. It starts when you give me a call and schedule your free consult. In this short phone call, we determine your goals and needs in treatment. If I don’t think I can help you, I will refer you to someone who can. If we both agree that we are a good fit, we meet in my office. I do a thorough evaluation of your past and present functioning. You can read more about my treatment approach and philosophy here.
Once we have spent some time learning valuable skills for calming your nervous system and building resilience, we begin to identify memories from your past that might be causing the symptoms you want to work on. In a typical EMDR session we spent some time “setting up” the memory. This process involves a series of questions that are all designed specifically to “light up” different areas of your brain to prime your neural networks for the more efficient processing. Once the memory is set up, then it’s your job to just relax and notice what happens. I will invite you to think about your particular target memory and then I will instruct you to either move your eyes back and forth following a pointer or my fingers or if this is uncomfortable, I will turn on electronic tappers that you will hold in your hands. Both of these methods are referred to as “bilateral stimulation” (BLS) because it stimulates both sides of the body and engages both hemispheres of the brain. In a rudimentary way, you could say that this BLS simulates REM sleep. During REM sleep is where some experts think that the events of our days are digested naturally. When the event is too traumatic, however, the digestion process gets stalled. EMDR helps that natural process to start up again and the memory can be digested fully. We will know if a memory is fully digested by going through a set of questions to determine where the memory stands in it’s processing. It’s all very scientific! And well researched. It follows a specific protocol that I will teach you so it won’t feel like you’re in the dark about anything. EMDR works best when you are a collaborative partner in the process.