Trauma & EMDR

We don’t know why, but certain traumatic events don’t process through the brain the way regular experiences do.  This can lead to is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD. PTSD is caused by past traumatic events that haven’t been fully processed. People often get misdiagnosed with depression, anxiety, bi-polar, and even schizoaffective disorder when in fact what they are suffering from is PTSD. This makes sense, because PTSD manifests with symptoms of depression, anxiety, mood instability, and in extreme cases, psychotic states. Once someone has been diagnosed with one of these disorders, often medications are prescribed, and the severity of the symptoms abate. The treatment is then considered successful.

The presenting problem has been taken care of,  but we find that because the actual cause of the symptoms is unprocessed trauma,  the symptoms will eventually return. Unprocessed trauma can also manifest in a big-time overreaction to situations that normally would not be so bothersome or volatile. I say a lot to my clients, “You stub your toe and instead of a normal  response you feel like you have to kill all the people around you.” When you get triggered, something physiological in your brain taps into anger or grief or whatever, and you find yourself wanting to create mayhem. This isn’t terribly pathological, even though you may feel crazy, and can be easily treated. 

The other piece that is important to understand is that trauma can be big trauma or little trauma. Maybe you got pushed off of your bike by your brother when you were 5, or maybe a volcano ate your family. That could also be an issue. It is not about judging or rating the way you should or you shouldn’t feel. It’s simply about figuring out what the root is and then cleaning it out.

Most people think about therapy as talking through their problems. Talk therapy is very powerful and very important. It leads to the insights. Why does red freak me out? Because my dad wore that red shirt the day he beat me up. Insight is awesome because it makes you feel not crazy. However, often insight alone is not enough to actually change the way you feel about stuff. So you may now understand why you freak out when you see the color red, but you still are freaking out because you see the color red.

That’s where EMDR comes in. EMDR: stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. It was developed 20-30 years ago and is specifically for working through unprocessed trauma.


EMDR works based on the theory that we process our experiences while we are in REM sleep, in our dreams. For whatever reason, traumatic experiences don’t seem to process  through REM sleep. They get stuck in the same place in our brains where our survival instincts lie. It’s where fight, flight, freeze, and freak out responses come from. So it makes perfect sense that when you get triggered you’re going to have a really strong response to it.

EMDR works by creating a similar chemical state in the brain that your brain is in when you are in REM sleep. Most therapists use a small machine that produces what is called bilateral stimulation. There’s a set of headphones and two small devices that vibrate that you hold in your hands. The sound that comes though the headphones and the vibrations through the devices switch from one side of your body to the other.  This produces that chemical state so your brain is literally primed to process.

I promise there is no electricity involved!

We decide what you want to work on by focusing on an experience or memory from your past that you think is linked to your current issue. We define a beginning and end of the story, look at what feelings come up, where you feel it in your body, your somatic experience, and rate it on a scale from one to ten as to how disturbed you feel. One is neutral and ten is extremely yucky.

Then you simply close your eyes. I start the machine and you revisit the memory. You don’t need to talk, you don’t need to explain, you just remember. I’m right here with you if anything gets overwhelming, we can talk and discuss it . The beauty is that this is not talk therapy. You simply go over the memory again and again and again. The goal is that your level of disturbance decreases to a one or a two and you eventually get bored. You literally get desensitized. The traumatic experience gets processed.

The best part is that EMDR works fast, usually within one to two sessions per experience.  The memory doesn’t change, you still know what happened, but when you get reminded, you don’t get triggered. This technique was originally developed for men who had been in combat and women who had been raped. It is very, very powerful and works best when you have insight into what’s happening, but you just can’t change the way you feel about it.


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