A popular phrase that I often hear adults say in therapy is “adulting is hard.” It’s common sentiment outside the therapy room as well. In fact, a slogan that can be found on T-shirts, coffee mugs, and even Instagram hashtags is “I can’t adult today.”
A review of the EMDR approach to treating trauma can help to explain why people feel overwhelmed with the pressures of adulthood. Have you ever been triggered by an event that reminded you of a negative experience? Perhaps it’s remembering a failed speech in a high school history class, a time when you were bullied by a group of kids, or a time when you got into a fight with a loved one. No matter how hard you try to forget the memory and move on, no matter how much you tell yourself things are different now, the image of this distressing event stays with you and affects you. Maybe you need to give a presentation at work and you are feeling more nervous about it than you think is reasonable. Or maybe you are going to be with a group of new people and you are scared they might bully you like you were bullied in school. You may be a successful, intelligent person, but what feel like unfounded fears continue to occupy your mind and you can’t shake them. What’s the deal? Why do our minds go there?
According to Francine Shapiro (2012), the founder of eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy, events that are distressing to us have a unique effect on our minds, bodies, and emotions. Shapiro states these experiences are not processed the same way as “regular” or non-distressing experiences, and they are stored in the brain in a maladaptive form.
To determine if an event is distressing, we can consider if the event made us feel as if we had no control, felt unsafe, or if we felt defective in some way. If these events occurred when we were children, we internalized these themes and, over time, came to believe they are truth or reality. As adults, we continue to experience the events as if we were children.
These events remain unprocessed and stored physiologically. This is why, when we are “triggered” or reminded of a past event, we become anxious, start shaking, or feel sick to our stomachs (or any other somatic symptoms)—our brains have not gone through the task of properly processing the memory. As Shapiro states:
The goal of EMDR is in reprocessing the distressing memory so that it can be stored in the brain in an adaptive form.
“When an unprocessed memory is triggered by similarities in the current situation, since the memory contains the distressing emotions, beliefs, and sensations of an earlier time, we experience the world in a distorted way. Even though we may be 30, 40, 50, 60 years old or more, it is as if we are holding the hand of a younger self, telling us what to do.” (p. 75)
So how can one begin the process of healing the brain from maladaptively stored distressing memories? The goal of EMDR is in reprocessing the distressing memory so that it can be stored in the brain in an adaptive form. The standard protocol for EMDR is an eight-phase approach. According to Shapiro, these phases include:
- Client history: The therapist asks questions regarding (1) past events that might be considered traumatic, (2) current triggers, and (3) future changes the person would like to see happen.
- Preparation: The therapist helps the person learn to stabilize themselves into calmer states when triggered. This can be done by teaching the person how to access a calm, safe place, and other grounding exercises.
- Assessment: The therapist identifies the target memory for EMDR processing by helping the person recall and identify certain aspects of the memory, including an image, negative belief about the self, and emotion felt when the event was experienced.
- Desensitization: In this phase, the therapist uses standard interactive procedures to stimulate reprocessing of memories. This is accomplished through sensory stimulation, which can include visual, auditory, or tactile.
- Installation: Once the memory is reprocessed, the therapist helps the person to identify a positive belief about the self to increase positive cognitive networks.
- Body scan: To ensure the reprocessing of the memory is complete, the therapist checks in with the person to see if there are any more disturbances in the body.
- Closure: The therapist provides tools such as stabilization techniques for the person to utilize between sessions if any disturbances occur.
- Reevaluation: The therapist checks in with the person at the next sessions to see if any insights have emerged, and to see how the memory is being integrated with the rest of the memory networks.
EMDR and other trauma therapies aim to make memories no longer triggering to the individual who experienced the events. Through therapy, one can reprocess a traumatic memory as an adult and begin to look at things with mature eyes. As the event is witnessed through the adult self, one can have compassion for their younger self—because as children, we did the best we could with what we had. As a result, “adulting” can be done without us feeling like children trying to handle problems that are beyond our control.
If you would like to learn more about therapy for trauma, consider finding a therapist in your area.
Shapiro, F. (2012). Getting past your past: Take control of your life with self-help techniques from EMDR therapy. New York, NY: Rodale, Inc.
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