The first question a person who is seeking help for trauma often asks is, “Will I ever get better?” It is common to feel hopeless after experiencing a traumatic event. Trauma affects how the brain functions. It can physically change the brain and make people feel that they are not themselves any longer. Activities that were once simple and automatic become difficult or feel downright impossible. Fortunately, the options for the treatment of trauma are very effective.
There are several options when it comes to choosing a modality of trauma treatment; I’ll cover them in subsequent articles. Having information about each modality can help a person to make an informed choice when choosing the route of treatment that is right for him or her.
Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) is one effective method of treating trauma. The name of this intervention is a mouthful; just seeing or hearing it can cause a person to feel overwhelmed and confused. It is, in reality, a fairly simple intervention that addresses the many effects of trauma, including negative beliefs about the self (such as “I am not safe” or “I am bad”) that commonly arise, the sensory aspect, including images and body sensations related to the trauma, as well as emotions.
According to the EMDR Institute, Inc., several studies have been conducted to test the efficacy of EMDR, and the data show that a majority of people experience a reduction in their trauma-related symptoms after treatment. One such study, conducted by Carlson et al. (1998), found that 77.7% of veterans who had experienced multiple traumatic events had an elimination of posttraumatic stress (PTSD) symptoms after participating in 12 sessions of EMDR. Another study, conducted by Arabia et al. (2011), found that people who had experienced a life-threatening health issue related to cardiac problems had a reduction in symptoms related to PTSD, depression, and anxiety.
Overview of EMDR Treatment
There are eight phases in EMDR treatment. Francine Shapiro (2001), who developed this therapeutic technique, states that it is important to understand that how long a person must spend in each phase will be different for each individual.
The phases include:
- Getting a history
- Preparing a person for the trauma work through building coping skills
- Determining the specific components of the first trauma that will be reprocessed
- Installing a positive belief about the self when recalling the trauma
- Checking in with the body for any residual trauma (body scan)
- Closing of the session
- Reevaluation during the next session to see if any new information has come up or changes have happened between sessions
The Role of Dual Attention Stimulus
The thing that most people find fascinating or even strange about EMDR is what is called dual attention stimulus, which is utilized during the desensitization, installation, and body scan phases of EMDR. This involves either moving the eyes back and forth, tapping on one side of the body and then the other (i.e., left hand and then right hand), or using sounds in alternating ears.
The dual attention seems to do a few things: helps the brain to work through previously difficult material, makes recalling memory easier, and has a calming effect. It is unknown why the dual attention has this effect, but several studies support its effectiveness (EMDR Institute, 2011).
Dual attention can also help a person to keep the attention in the present while allowing the brain to go to the past, which can help to decrease the potential for hyperarousal, which could get in the way of treatment. It is also thought to help with moving information through the brain so it can be filed away correctly.
How EMDR Helps the Brain
Another way to see the EMDR process and how it helps is to imagine that your brain and its memory networks are a network of streams and rivers. When a traumatic event happens, it is almost like a beaver dam has been constructed somewhere within the network, which can send the entire network into panic mode. The water gets backed up and overflows, which can affect areas that don’t seem connected to the network with the block.
In the case of trauma, it is the emotion, memories, body sensations, thoughts, and beliefs that are overflowing and not getting where they need to go. EMDR’s main objective is to address and remove the beaver dam, or block, so that the brain can process. Removing blocks essentially helps the brain to tap into its own ability to heal itself.
Is It Right for You?
If interested in participating in EMDR therapy, make sure that the therapist you choose was trained by a reputable source.
EMDR is a well-researched and effective treatment for trauma on any level, no matter how small or big. Even if EMDR is not the right fit for you, other resources and treatment modalities are available.
- Arabia, E., Manca, M.L., and Solomon, R.M. (2011). EMDR for survivors of life-threatening cardiac events: Results of a pilot study. Journal of EMDR Practice and Research, 5, pp. 2-13. Retrieved September 1, 2014 from http://www.emdr.com/general-information/research-overview.html
- Carlson, J., Chemtob, C.M., Rusnak, K., Hedlund, N.L, and Muraoka, M.Y. (1998). Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR): Treatment for combat-related post-traumatic stress disorder. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 11, 3-24. Retrieved September 1, 2014 from http://www.emdr.com/general-information/research-overview.html
- EMDR Institute, Inc. Dual attention stimuli. Retrieved September 1, 2014 from http://www.emdr.com/general-information/dual-attention-stimuli.html
- EMDR Institute, Inc. Research overview. Retrieved September 1, 2014 from http://www.emdr.com/general-information/research-overview.html
- Shapiro, F. (2001). Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing: Basic principles, protocols, and procedures, second edition. The Guilford Press: New York
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