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Facing the Past and Dealing with Trauma – How EMDR Helps

“PTSD is a whole-body tragedy, an integral human event of enormous proportions with massive repercussions.” ~ Susan Pease Banitt

For those who have experienced a traumatic personal event or history, facing the past can be one of the most difficult aspects of working through recovery. Trauma leads to feelings of a loss of control, a lack of trust, and the inability to tell anybody about it. But all of these – regaining control, rebuilding trust, and describing what happened over and over again – are all integral to trauma recovery. Thankfully, support groups and individual counselors can help with this process. A relatively new form of therapy has been shown to help individuals face the past and deal with trauma. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) Therapy has the express purpose of helping those with PTSD and other forms of trauma to work through the traumatic event or past. This short overview examines how to deal with trauma, what EMDR is, and how EMDR can help in facing the past.

Dealing with Trauma is a Process

Trauma includes everything from physical abuse and neglect to alcoholism and disabilities. Whatever its form, trauma is certainly not easy to deal with or overcome. However, one of the best ways to face traumatic experiences is to engage with them straight on. Dealing with trauma is a process, but not one that you have to go alone. Mary Ellen Copeland, the psychiatrist who developed the Wellness Recovery Action Plan, outlines five of the major steps in dealing with trauma: take control back, talk to people about it, develop trust and close relationships, and work with a counselor or support group. All of this helps to create an action plan so that the progress on the way to recovery is not lost. An integral part of this plan to work through the trauma with a trained psychologist or psychiatrist – which is where EMDR Therapy comes in.

EMDR: The What, How and Why of the Therapy

As described above, EMDR Therapy is dependent on the desensitization to and reprocessing of eye movement. Originally, the therapy was designed for therapy with PTSD but has since been extended to the treatment of all kinds of trauma. More specifically, EMDR Therapy relies on a simple practice: the counselor has the patient move their eyes rapidly side to side like they are watching a professional grade game of ping pong. During the exercise, the counselor and patient process the traumatic event or experience together. The idea is that by the end of the EMDR Therapy sessions the patient will have become both desensitized to the uncomfortable sensation of rapid eye movement and internalized the underlying truths brought out during the sessions. The guiding principle of this form of therapy is Adaptive Information Processing, which holds that mental health is dependent on successfully processing negative life experiences. EMDR Therapy, at its core, helps process these experiences by associating them with physical stimuli.

How EMDR Helps Overcome Trauma

More than twenty clinical trials of EMDR therapy have shown its usefulness for nearly everyone who has experienced a traumatic event in the past. In fact, one study found that actually moving the eyes was more productive than a similar approach that simply had patients close their eyes. EMDR Therapy helps traumatized individuals deal with their trauma in a variety of ways. The main benefit that EMDR brings to individuals as they process trauma is by separating the memories of the traumatic event or experience from the vivid images and emotional intensity of the trauma. For instance, one study found that subjects who performed eye movements while memorizing a picture had more difficulty recalling the image details afterward than those who simply studied the image. Chris Lee, a psychologist who authored a study on the therapy, confirms this:

“Our experiments clearly show that negative autobiographical memories are very rich in sensory detail, and by pairing them with eye movements, they lose this sensory richness. People describe that the memories become less vivid and more distant, that they seem further in the past and harder to focus on. What follows after this distancing is a reduction in the associated emotional levels.”

In this way, EMDR Therapy essentially refocuses the traumatized patient on processing the trauma rather on the imagery of the trauma itself. EMDR Therapy does not seek to rid an individual of their traumatic memories but instead reduce the emotional power that this traumatic experience holds over them. With EMDR, individuals can process trauma until it is no longer detrimental to their personal life and mental health.