Many people who deal with trauma struggle to understand why they are so affected by traumatic incident(s) in their lives. Two people can witness or experience the same type of trauma (abuse, natural disaster, a car accident, etc.) and yet have completely different responses to the event. One person may appear to be unaffected, completely resilient and perhaps even finding something positive in it (e.g. “this made me stronger”). The other person could become tortured with memories of the event, experiencing overwhelming anxiety and developing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Oftentimes when people seek treatment for trauma-related symptoms or PTSD, they meet with a clinician and talk about their trauma and its effects on their life. They may learn relaxation techniques to help manage their anxiety and gain insight into what triggers or perpetuates their trauma reaction. While this is helpful, for some people it is not enough.
Dr. Francine Shapiro discovered and developed a treatment in the 1990’s that has been proven empirically to reduce trauma-related symptoms by essentially helping to change how our brain remembers and incorporates the trauma into our life. What Shapiro and her colleagues came to discover is that everything that happens to us is stored in a network of memories. Our brain processes information from these memories to help us do something quite crucial: learn. We incorporate the information from these memories to increase our understanding of the world around us and help us adapt to our environment.
Imagine for a moment that someone has lived through something traumatic like a car accident. Even if a significant amount of time has passed (5, 10 years), the person may be able to recall vivid details (sound of tires squealing, sight of shattered glass, physical sensation/pain) and notice that they have a physiological reaction (rapid heartrate, muscle tension, etc.) as they think about the incident. This traumatic memory has not been processed or “digested” in the same way. It is stuck. Because of this, we struggle to use the information from the memory in a helpful way. We feel in danger despite now being safe again. We struggle to trust that we can be safe.
Shapiro’s treatment, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, is one that uses eye movements to stimulate both hemispheres of the brain and is believed to access those memory networks where the trauma memories are “stuck” and that can’t be accessed simply by talking. The client is instructed to think about different elements of their trauma while the clinician has them move their eyes back and forth. This sounds a bit strange, but some believe this helps a client to stay grounded in the present moment to avoid becoming too overwhelmed with their memories. Others think it may be effective because it is a similar process involved in the REM (rapid eye movement) stage of sleep.
Clients continue to process the memory and use eye movements until they report a minimal amount of distress as they recall the trauma. Then the clinician will target other smaller traumas or triggers with eye movements. Additionally, the clinician helps them to create more helpful cognitions to replace negative cognitions from the trauma. For example, “I’m not safe,” can become “I am safe now and can do different things to keep myself safe.” The memory becomes digested and the person can now think about it without it negatively affecting them the way it once did.
If you are someone suffering from trauma-related symptoms, talk to a therapist to see if EMDR could be an appropriate treatment for you.