Healing Trauma with EMDR

Annie Miller TherapyBlog

Trauma can be a difficult thing to define. We think of trauma as a deeply distressing experience, or an emotional response to a disturbing event. I often encounter people who feel that something difficult they have been through shouldn’t be defined as trauma. Perhaps it wasn’t life threatening, or they feel that it wasn’t “bad enough.” But the truth is, there are all kinds of traumas, large and small and they impact us in different ways.

It can be helpful to think of trauma in two categories- Big “T” and little “t” traumas. Big “T” traumas are typically associated with PTSD, such as life-threatening experiences, injury or abuse. And little “t” traumas are events like bullying, loss of a significant relationship, events that cause intense shame or anything that is highly distressing to someone. It can also be helpful to keep in mind that we handle trauma uniquely as individuals. Something that is traumatic to one person may not feel traumatic to the next person. And we now have evidence that repeated exposure to little “t” traumas can cause more emotional harm than exposure to a single big “T” event.

How does the body react to trauma? When we experience something traumatic, our body goes into fight-or-flight mode and the body launches a stress response. The danger can be real or perceived and the body reacts the same way, regardless. Sometimes, the body can get stuck in this response and we experience the release of stress hormones and physical reactions, like heart pounding or sweating, on a regular basis. Over time, this can affect the way our body functions, impacting multiple systems in the body from our GI tract, to our hormones, to how we sleep.

In certain instances, our body remembers the traumatic event and links it with how we feel (the stress response). For example, let’s say Jack has never been afraid of heights before and loves climbing up to high places. Then one day, Jack is hiking at a high altitude and slips momentarily. Even if everything is fine and Jack is completely safe, his body goes into the fight or flight mode- his heart rate increased, his mouth gets dry, he feels sweaty and light-headed. His brain has interpreted this moment as a stress or trauma. Jack’s brain remembers this response and it is possible that in the future when he goes hiking and reaches a high altitude, he may experience the stress response, even though no stress is present. Our brain can store and remember that feeling. For some people, it is as if a fire alarm is being pulled but there is no fire. Our body responds as if we are in danger, when no danger is present.

Many of us do experience small traumas at some point in time and for some of us, it can very hard to move on. We get stuck in the stress response and negative thought patterns and it’s hard to get out. Now what?

One of the most helpful ways to deal with any kind of trauma is a therapy called “EMDR,” or Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. EMDR is comprehensive model of therapy that helps patients to reprocess the traumatic event.

Therapists can help clients to work through these stored traumas, whether big “T” or small “t” by using EMDR. We use what is called bi-lateral stimulation and and activate both sides of the brain with stimuli using side-to-side movements. These movements are similar to the rapid eye movement stage of sleep. EMDR can help you to feel safe and grounded in the present moment and not get lost in the stress response reaction.

In my practice, I use a tool for EMDR (theratapper) that vibrates back and forth while the client imagines the memory we want to work on. The client begins by associating that memory or moment with a negative belief about themselves and as they process through the difficult experience, often clients are able to make some significant shifts. EMDR works best when it is a slow progression and that clients feel safe and stable before working on any really disturbing memories. EMDR can also be used for future events that cause anxiety or distress.

EMDR can be very effective and can help you heal from all types of trauma.