I struggled with how to start this article and how to describe what EMDR is. I finally decided to use EMDRIA’s description of EMDR.
‘EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. It is a form of therapy that helps people heal from trauma or other distressing life experiences…
Our brains have a natural way to recover from traumatic memories and events. This process involves communication between the amygdala (the alarm signal for stressful events), the hippocampus (which assists with learning, including memories about safety and danger), and the prefrontal cortex (which analyzes and controls behavior and emotion). While many times traumatic experiences can be managed and resolved spontaneously, they may not be processed without help. Stress responses are part of our natural fight, flight, or freeze instincts. When distress from a disturbing event remains, the upsetting images, thoughts, and emotions may create feelings of overwhelm, of being back in that moment, or of being “frozen in time.” EMDR therapy helps the brain process these memories, and allows normal healing to resume. The experience is still remembered, but the fight, flight, or freeze response from the original event is resolved.’
Feel free to check out EMDRIA’s website to learn more from them.
Some of you will find that useful. Me, not so much. So allow me to translate. Often times, we have experiences that can be traumatic. This can be a ‘big t’ trauma such as an assault, car accident, etc. Or a ‘little t’ trauma, such as your first day of kindergarten. We don’t get to pick and choose what our brains interpret as danger or trauma. It is what it is. We also don’t get to pick what trauma memories get processed and laid to rest and which memories remain intact in our mind and unprocessed. Unprocessed memories continue to impact our current lives.
That might still feel really confusing, so let me give you a couple of examples. First-the processed trauma memory. Straight out of high school I joined the army. Basic training was so scary! I remember calling my mom on a pay phone and snot sobbing all over the place because I was homesick. Trauma memory. Here’s how I know it’s processed. I remember the snot crying, but I can’t bring up what it felt like emotionally or physically. It’s just a memory. It’s flat and has no depth to it. Furthermore, I have a story that my mind has created that is healing.
“Basic training was so hard! But missing my mom like that helped repair our relationship. And succeeding in basic training was one of the best things I’ve ever done for my self-confidence.”
See how the memory has morphed a little and fit into my way of seeing the world? My brain created a story about the experience and turned it into a positive experience. That’s a processed memory.
Now let’s look at an unprocessed memory. Many years ago, I was playing with my dog when she got loose, ran out into the road and got hit by a car. I won’t go into details, but I could. For whatever reason, that memory got ‘stuck’. When I thought of it, I would want to cry. My body would react, increased heart rate, rapid shallow breathing, sick stomach. You get the idea. That is a memory that was not flat, when I remembered it, I could feel it.
This memory was ‘stuck’ and it impacted me throughout my life. I became scared of walking my dogs near busy streets. I would do my best to avoid these situations. If that wasn’t possible, my body would react to the mis-perceived danger. My heart rate would increase, my breathing would turn fast and shallow. With my small dogs, I would pick them up and carry them, all the while being terrified that she would break loose and run into the street. Can you see how the unprocessed memory was leaking into my current world and having a negative impact?
Luckily, EMDR can reprocess those memories so they are no longer stuck. There is a lot of ground work before we get to the reprocessing. But once we reprocess, the memories shift fast. People are often able to understand the memory differently. It’s common for people to start out feeling blame/shame/disgust and a wide range of other negative emotions and beliefs about themselves regarding the trauma memory. Once the memory is reprocessed, it won’t be a pleasant memory, but it will no longer hold any weight. The blame/shame/disgust etc are gone as well as the physical reactions.
Remember me and my dogs around busy streets? I moved offices and I’m on a busy street now. For the longest time, it would send me into an anxiety spiral. I would carry her into the building and still be upset.
A therapist friend of mine reprocessed the original memory. Afterwards, I was in the elevator and ready to pick her up to carry her across the street and just decided it wasn’t necessary. Then I found myself standing at the corner waiting for the spotlight to change and suddenly realized I wasn’t worried about my dog breaking loose and getting hit. I was just...standing there thinking about whatever...totally relaxed. That is the power of EMDR.
In addition to creating Bodhi Counseling, Melanie Sivley is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in private practice in Champaign, IL. She is a student of Zen Buddhism and specializes in Anxiety, Depression and Trauma. She is EMDR trained and currently pursuing her EMDR certification.
Melanie Sivley, LCSW
206 N. Randolph, Suite 505B
Champaign, IL 61820