Trauma and EMDR

What is meant by trauma? 

A trauma is an experience that overwhelms one’s capacity to cope. Usually the experience includes feelings of helplessness. Trauma is not defined as the actual stressful event but in how the brain and the nervous system are impacted by the event. 

Two people can experience the same event, e.g. a car crash, but six months later one of them rarely thinks about it and the other is off work, feeling depressed, no longer socialising and feels full of anxiety. The experience has been traumatic and overwhelming to the second person. This could possibly be because it is linked to some previous experience that was overwhelming, often in childhood. The linked event may or may not be known. 

To cope with the current difficulty we can get to the root event and reprocess these using EMDR. EMDR is more than just talking about the problem. It may be possible to process the memory of the event by beginning with an image or a physical sensation in the body.

We mentioned at the beginning of this article that trauma is, ‘how the brain and the nervous system are impacted by the event’. What does that mean? Essentially it means the experience was ‘too much’ for the brain’s normal mechanism for processing an experience. So the brain’s filing system, called the hippocampus, wasn’t able at the time to store the experience away in its normal fashion. By that we mean the brain could not link it up with other similar experiences and timestamp it correctly into the ‘past’ filing cabinet in the brain. It is therefore still in the ‘present’ filing cabinet in the brain. That’s why it can feel like it’s happening now. The fire alarm bit of our brain, called the amygdala, keeps firing, or keeps triggering to warn us. It feels as if it is happening now.  

The amygdala kicks off a feeling response in our body. So for example, we feel tense, our heart rate speeds up, our stomach churns, we feel sick or begin sweating or we need the toilet. We become hyper-vigilant. These are all physical sensations. So ti use the example above when you think of the car crash, even though it happened 6 months ago, you feel the physical symptoms as though it is happening right now.

Trauma has long-term effects because these physical sensations are the body remembering. If they haven’t gone away naturally after a month or so of the event happening they are unlikely to go away. You can avoid reminders of the event but that takes a lot of energy and doesn’t always work. 

The good news is that the impact of these experiences can significantly lessen by using EMDR to re-process them and file them away in their correct place.