EMDR and the Physiology of Trauma

Trauma (“cataclysmic” or not and recognized or not) is often at the root of suffering. It shapes our perception of the world, and the shrapnel that is left behind creates a wound that eventually scars our innocence, fragments our psyches, and blocks our ability to trust ourselves and others. In order to help those who are stuck in their traumatic experiences to achieve release from their debilitating emotional prisons, it is important to understand the components and dynamics of trauma.

It has been my experience that talk therapy is very limited in addressing trauma; it is great for identifying the source of the trauma, the faulty beliefs that ensue, and the patterns of behavior that persist; it does little, however, to affect the internal, visceral reactions that weigh so heavy in the trauma survivor’s psyche. One reason for this is the physiological component of trauma that is not able to be resolved because of the duress the person was under during the traumatic experience. Since the physiological response is what triggers emotional states, these will not cease until the body recognizes that it is safe. Until the person processes the trauma in a way that the body and brain understands, there is little possibility for a true sense of emotional relief.

When triggered, a traumatized person’s internal state is impacted in such a way that the person is transported back in time and relives the disturbing event. It may be easiest to understand in terms of PTSD with an identifiable trigger. For instance, a veteran who has returned home from war and is startled whenever he hears a sudden, loud noise. He is hijacked from the present moment and thrust back into the life-threatening situation that he experienced in combat.

The human brain is continually scanning new sensory input to make potential associations between the incoming information and what is already stored in memory in order to evaluate relevance and meaning. Because only fragmented pieces are available in traumatic memories, there is little possibility for the person to construct a narrative that places the traumatic experience in its proper context in the past. At merely a reminder of the event, trauma victims seem to continue to react with the same level of fear response that was appropriate during the traumatic event, despite not having any logical reason to necessitate such arousal. Without context, the emotions overwhelm the nervous system, and seemingly benign sensory input can cause a person to panic or shut down, in order to “escape” the discomfort.

It is no wonder that trauma survivors often feel at the mercy of their emotions. From a physiological standpoint, they are. Until this cycle is broken, it is very difficult to make lasting change, or to make change that really impacts the internal feeling states. One might be able to change their behavior, but their interior experience will not have changed. EMDR is one treatment modality that specifically changes the way the body responds on a physiological level by reprocessing the traumatic event.

EMDR uses exposure to a traumatic memory or disturbing event paired with “bilateral stimulation” of the brain: tracking the therapist’s finger or string of lights with the eyes, alternating hand pulsers, or listening to alternating tones. Current thoughts, feelings, physical sensations related to the memory are activated, and sets of bilateral stimulation are conducted to reduce the emotional and physiological (visceral) reactions to the memory. This form of desensitization helps the person to reprocess the event and the associated negative emotions and beliefs about themselves into adaptive, healthy and more accurate beliefs. As the disturbance diminishes, clients often report feeling “lighter” and less triggered by situations that had previously reminded them of the original event.

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