Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy (EMDR) is one of the great counseling techniques (stay tuned for others) to lessen the triggers and flooding that come with anxiety. It works on the stuck memories that come out with physical sensations when we are confronted with smells, sights, people, places, or sounds that are similar to trauma, pain, or fear we experienced in the past. For example, if you’ve experienced sexual assault that started when you were sleeping, by a man with alcohol and cigarettes on his breath, you might start sweating or crying when you smell the combination of cigarette smoke and alcohol. You might start hyperventilating or having chest pain when you are woken up from a deep sleep. You might need to sleep with the lights on, or in your living room, or not much at all.
The smoke, alcohol, darkness, being woken up, or sleep itself, are triggers that flood the brain with chemicals that put us into fight, flight, or most commonly, freeze mode.
We feel immobilized and experience panic, perspiration, inability to catch our breath, chest pain, tingling sensations in our hands or feet, lightheadedness, nausea, or headaches. We might get a flush of being extremely hot or cold, blacking out, and even a sensation of either watching ourselves from outside our bodies or of not being present in that time and space at all (this last one is called dissociation and I’ll post more about it later).
These physical sensations, interestingly, are our brain and body’s way of protecting us from danger. Our brain was so overwhelmed by the danger and trauma of the assault that it goes into protection mode to make sure to keep us from getting assaulted again – it warns us if any aspect of the assault is present now to tell us to get away and get safe.
When you think about it that way, our brains are pretty amazing, right? The problem comes when the brain’s attempt to protect us isn’t helpful, like when we are not in danger of assault but the brain thinks we might be, so we can’t be around certain smells or sights or places without experiencing the physical and immobilizing symptoms I talked about above.
While our brains are terrific at protecting us, that protection, when we don’t need it, gets in the way of us living life and doing things we want to do.
Enter EMDR Therapy
EMDR is a technique that I use, to help your brain recognize that sleep doesn’t necessarily lead to assault, nor does darkness, or the smells of cigarette smoke and beer.
EMDR uses something called bilateral stimulation – stimulating both sides of the brain – to get the emotional feeling side synced up with the logical thinking side. Integrating the two sides around the trauma helps the brain reprocess the traumatic event and move it from a current trauma to a past trauma, thereby lessening the physical triggers and panic in the present.
Sounds like such a relief, right? It certainly can be. EMDR does not make the memories go away, but it does lessen and dilute the symptoms related to the assault – or car wreck, dental visit, humiliating or fearful event, loss, death of a loved one, combat, dog bite, or, or, or, you get the idea.
Like all EMDR trained therapists, I've gone through rigorous training over an extended period, many hours of practice, and consultation with a certified EMDR supervisor, to make sure it's the best and most effective treatment for the issue/s you want to work on. Just like psychotherapy – longer, deeper, talk therapy – is not right for every person or even every issue of the same person, the same holds true for EMDR.
If you experience symptoms such as panic, tingling hands or feet, anxiety, nausea, avoidance of places, smells, sounds, or people, or a sensation of not being present, ask me about EMDR and whether it might be helpful for you. Request your free consultation here.
Note: If you are involved in a lawsuit, or if you plan to be involved in a lawsuit, related to the original trauma, please contact your lawyer to determine whether it is advisable to keep your triggers intact until the legal issue is resolved.