Our EMDR-trained therapists believe trauma survivors can move beyond “surviving” into “thriving.”
Why We Store Traumatic Memories and Experience PTSD
When a scary or overwhelming event takes place, your brain may go into “fight or flight mode.” When this happens, your brain functions differently than normal. Your amygdala begins the reaction sending signals to many systems of your body to go into “survival mode.” Your body is flooded with hormones like epinephrine and cortisol which in turn boost your energy, increase blood pressure, increase blood sugar, and increase your heart and respiratory rate to prepare your body to act (so you can run away or fight off a threat) and also suppress the digestive and immune systems (limiting non-essential functions to drive more resources to short term survival).
Our brains encode memories while in fight of flight mode differently, causing those memories to retain a big emotional charge even after the event has passed.
Encoding a memory as a traumatic memory is incredibly helpful for survival if we need to be ready to react quickly the next time something similar takes place. When we lived in the jungle with wild animals, we needed to be able to quickly recognize even subtly similar sounds, smells, or images and jump right back into fight or flight mode in order to get away from the next approaching predator.
In the modern world, we do not need this reaction as much anymore. However, our brains haven’t quite caught up to the 21st century.
When the scary or overwhelming event is very unlikely to happen again, or the circumstances have changed because you are safe now, our brains do not do a great job of re-categorizing these memories as typical memories, and instead tend to keep us on “high alert” even when the danger is well passed. This vestige of a brain system that was once critical to our survival is the basis for what we know as PTSD or “traumatic memory.”
EMDR is designed to assist the brain in re-categorizing a memory from a traumatic memory (where you are triggered into fight or flight mode any time you are reminded of the event through sight, sound, sensation, smell, or thought) into a typical memory.
When you remember what you ate for breakfast yesterday, or the last time you went out for dinner, or your most recent trip to the grocery store, do you have a big emotional reaction? Chances are most of us will say “no.” That is because these are stored as typical memories and do not have the emotional and physical charge or a traumatic memory.
Healing after Trauma with EMDR
By desensitizing (making the memory less intense) and reprocessing (improved understanding and organization of the memory) painful life events, EMDR (Eye-Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) helps people to finally lay down the burden of reliving painful events from their past and experience freedom again.
We regularly hear clients say things like, “I never thought I could feel this way again.” and “I feel so much lighter now!” after successful course of EMDR therapy.
How does this happen?
EMDR uses bilateral stimulation and structured revisiting of the memory to help your brain to reprocess traumatic memories and allow them to be stored like all of your other typical memories.
Bilateral stimulation means that your brain is being activated across the left and right hemispheres in a rhythmic pattern. This is what happens in your brain when you move your eyes back and forth from left to right (thus the “EM” in the acronym). Once it was discovered that the process at work was not specific to the movement of your eyes, but to bilateral brain stimulation caused by eye movement, we gained more options to achieve the same effect.
Dr. Katie Godfrey demonstrating the gentle vibration option for bilateral stimulation
We now commonly use sound that plays back and forth from left to right and gentle vibration (similar to the vibration created when your cell phone is in silent mode) that crosses the body (typically by just being held in your hands) as alternatives to eye movements.
Structured revisiting of the memory is used to allow you to revisit the painful memory or memories in a controlled manner in order to reduce the intensity of the related emotions, thoughts, beliefs, and physical sensations. In EMDR you are not “flooded” by the painful emotions related to the memory, because your therapist guides you to move at your own pace, and teaches you techniques to reduce the intensity of the memory as you go.
You remain in the driver’s seat of the process the entire time.
As you continue through EMDR, you move through each aspect of the memory and also learn to “let whatever comes up come up” to ensure that all aspects of the painful memory are reprocessed successfully. You will notice the emotions and sensations associated with the memory arise and then start to dissipate as your brain reprocesses the memory and learns how to store it just like a typical memory, with no need for an emotional “charge” or physical reaction to accompany it any more.
The amazing thing about EMDR is that your brain is in the driver’s seat the whole time. Nothing is being artificially forced on you, EMDR just allows your brain to do what it already knows how to do: process and store memories.
Did you know EMDR is also helpful for people who have not been through a traumatic event?
In fact, we use EMDR nearly every day with people who are trying to get “un-stuck” from a pattern of thinking or behavior that isn’t helpful anymore, or who are trying to move past a difficult experience that they are having a hard time letting go of.
EMDR was originally developed to treat the effects of trauma and is also commonly reported to be helpful with:
- Achieving peak performance
- Improving self-esteem and reducing stress
- Decreasing performance anxiety
- Reducing panic
- Letting go of negative beliefs about yourself, the world, and others
- Reducing or resolving many other issues related to painful memories. stress, mood, or anxiety
Eye-Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is an evidence-based practice that has been shown to effectively decrease or eliminate the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Anxiety and Depression.
Research has show that EMDR can be a rapid and effective treatment. A bibliography of the extensive research about EMDR can be found at the EMDR International Association’s website: www.emdria.org
Want to learn more about EMDR? Give us a call at 720-675-7123. We always start with a no-pressure free 30-minute consultation session for anyone thinking about working with one of us.