When an individual experiences a traumatic event it can impact the emotional well-being of the person for a lifetime. Trauma is an experience that threatens the survival of the person. As a survival mechanism, the person’s mind disconnects as a way of coping with the experience that is occurring, and the event is thereby not stored in the same way that other, non-traumatic memories are stored.
Traumatic events are stored in the brain as a memory frozen in time, with the same thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations that were occurring at the time of the event.
Trauma threatens the survival of the person
When I work with clients, they often underestimate the traumatic nature of the events of their past. It’s not uncommon for people to believe that trauma and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are unique to certain populations, like war veterans.
On the contrary, traumatic experiences are relatively common. According to the National Centre for PTSD, the estimated lifetime prevalence of PTSD among adult Americans is 7.8%, with women (10.4%) twice as likely as men (5%) to have PTSD at some point in their lives.
Trauma is not stored by the magnitude of an event, but by how that event is stored in the nervous system. This means that a variety of experiences can constitute as trauma, depending on the individual. It’s possible you’ve tried talk therapy for the traumatic events you’ve experienced, but it didn’t help completely.
Bessel van der Kolk, a pioneer in research on the neurobiology of trauma, makes it clear: talk therapy just doesn’t cut it when it comes to trauma and PTSD. He makes it clear why: ‘The imprint of trauma doesn’t “sit” in the verbal, understanding part of the brain, but in much deeper regions – amygdala, hippocampus, hypothalamus and brain stem – which are only marginally affected by thinking and cognition.’
In other words, talking about the trauma doesn’t access the parts of our brain where the trauma is stored.
Eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing
Imagine recalling a traumatic memory in detail while rapidly moving your eyes back and forth, as if you are watching a high-speed ping-pong match. This is how you can imagine how the eye movements look and feel during an eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EMDR) session.
The sensation is strange at first, but most people get used to it quickly. To date, there is an overwhelming amount of research that supports EMDR treatment and concludes that eye movements indeed reduce the symptoms, often dramatically, of trauma and PTSD.
The first phase of EMDR resembles the start of most psychotherapeutic treatments: a therapist enquires about the person’s presenting problems, early life events and desired goals to achieve. The second phase is preparing the client to mentally revisit the traumatic event, which might involve helping the person learn ways to self-soothe.
Finally, the memory processing itself is similar to other exposure-based therapies, minus the eye movements. Eye movements represent the processing portion of the treatment, wherein the traumatic memory is reprocessed to a more adaptive, less distressing form. People find that over a series of sessions, the traumatic memory no longer holds the charge it once did, and their problematic symptoms, caused by the past trauma, dramatically improve.
Eye movement are essential aspect of treating trauma
In a January 2011 study in the Journal of Anxiety Disorders, some patients with PTSD went through a session of EMDR while others completed all the components of a typical EMDR session but without the eye movements. The patients whose session included eye movements reported a more significant reduction in distress than did patients in the control group. Their level of physiological arousal, another common symptom of PTSD, also decreased during the eye movements, as measured by the amount of sweat on their skin.
The rapid eye movements used in EMDR are similar to REM, or dream sleep; but, the exact mechanism of why eye movements are so effective in treating trauma isn’t totally understood. What is found, though, is that the eye movements reduce PTSD symptoms by stripping troubling memories of their vividness and the distress they cause. After effective EMDR treatment, many people report that the traumatic memory feels more ‘distant’ or ‘blurry’.
EMDR can be effective for trauma
People often report that the traumatic memory seems further in the past and is harder to pull up. What follows is a reduction in the distressing emotions once associated with these memories. The traumatic memory is still able to be remembered, but its power has been diminished.
The American Psychiatric Association, the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies, and the Departments of Defense and of Veterans Affairs have deemed EMDR as an effective therapy for trauma and PTSD. This is good news for trauma sufferers, particularly those who have gone through other forms of talk therapy and are still experiencing distress and PTSD symptoms.
Jennifer Huggins, PsyD is a licensed clinical psychologist in West Los Angeles, specialising in trauma and chronic pain.