Coming to terms with adverse times in life is not an easy feat when taking it on alone. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a therapeutic technique that helps relieve post-traumatic stress (PTSD), depression, anxiety, panic attacks, eating disorders, and addiction. While pain from the past is a vital part of personal development, painful thoughts and memories do not have to remain as a cause of stress forever. It is okay to retain strong negative emotions about something from the past, but allowing it to remain a hindrance to wellness can quickly become a problem. This is where EMDR comes in.
In essence, EMDR entails utilizing REM-based eye-movements when thinking about traumatic memories to aid in processing trauma. One’s recollection of an event does not change; however, one’s perception does. Instead of feeling fearful or weak due to an event, one can feel confident or strong for surviving it (EMDR Institute). The process of EMDR starts with a review of one’s history and healing process. From there, specific memories are chosen and recollected in detail, going all the way to the physical sensations experienced in these memories. Periodically the therapist will ask the subject to identify emotions felt regarding these memories; over time, the sense of distress should fade away (Gotter).
Progress will constantly be evaluated throughout this process. EMDR has been found to significantly reduce PTSD symptoms in the long term with the added benefit of lacking the side effects that come with prescribed medicine. EMDR has a relatively low dropout rate and has not been found to worsen PTSD symptoms during treatment (Gotter).
EMDR is a powerful tool to further one’s wellness by prompting one to process their traumas and gain a more positive outlook on life. While difficult times cannot always be avoided, it is one’s mindset and attitude that allow for growth. There is no need to forget negative experiences, but rather remember them for what they are: the past. The past does not have to hinder anyone indefinitely. It is just as possible to use the past as a source of strength instead of a weakness.
As a therapist treating adult clients with depression, anxiety, or addiction, I have concluded that all three conditions stem from developmental trauma known as “adverse childhood events” (popularly called ACEs) (Felitti, 1998). Examples of ACES are a chaotic home environment marked by sudden angry arguments, domestic violence, parental substance abuse, parental incarceration or parental separation/divorce; physical, sexual or emotional abuse; or failure to meet the child’s need for validation, loving emotional connection, emotional holding and affectionate physical touch.
Adverse Childhood Events (ACEs)
ACEs are highly traumatic to children. They impair the structural and functional development of the child’s brain while blunting her ability to sense what happens in her body or to experience and express her emotions (Perry, 2006). They also cause the developing child to create powerful negative self-beliefs as a way of explaining why her parents treat her so terribly. A child is 100% dependent on her parents and is not capable of forming or living with the belief that they are cruel, incompetent, or uncaring, so she blames herself for being abused or ignored. She concludes that there is something wrong or defective about her and that she alone is the cause of the ACES inflicted upon her when such is certainly not true (Miller, 2007).
Negative self-beliefs are a form of self-blame for the pain of not being loved well. They operate over the lifespan like a software program buried invisibly in the unconscious mind. An adult who harbors unconscious negative self-beliefs has a tendency to keep finding evidence to confirm them. While adults without a traumatic childhood can shake off and bounce back from their missteps, mistakes, rejections, and failures, the same is not true for children who were traumatized. The more ACEs in childhood the more suffering in adulthood (Felitti, 1998).
The list of negative self-beliefs a child can develop is a rather long, sad list and includes such beliefs as: “I don’t deserve to exist;” “I don’t make mistakes, I am a mistake;” “I am invisible;” and “nobody will ever love me.” In my experience, the two most common beliefs relate to a lack of agency and lack of lovability. Let’s take a look at each one.
What does agency refer to, and why is it important? Agency is an essential component of personhood. An agent is capable of acting on her own to protect and care for herself and others, and to bring about changes in herself and her environment. An agent adopts a moral code from her life experiences and comes to know what is good or bad for her. She is able to trust her own judgment.
A child who is over-protected, ignored and unsupported, or invalidated by relentless criticism, grows up without a sense of agency. The over-protected child has no opportunities to test, develop, and see proof of her own abilities. The child who suffers from parental indifference and lack of support, grows up feeling invisible and powerless. This perception is strengthened by the fact that she must rely completely upon her own resources while competing with other children at school and extra-curricular activities. She feels alone and is filled with self-doubt. The child who is criticized over and over by her parents, may see herself as unable to get anything right or achieve anything worthwhile. Adults who lack a sense of agency are prone to fear, anxiety, and shame. When they do succeed on the surface, they suffer from imposter syndrome.
What does lovability encompass? To be lovable is to be accepted just as you are without needing to manipulate others or pretend to be more than you are to gain social acceptance. An adult who perceives herself as unlovable due to childhood trauma sees herself as broken, defective, and less than others. She hesitates to approach others for friendship, dating, jobs, or promotions because she views herself through self-degrading adjectives like unattractive, ugly, stupid, dull, boring, uncool, awkward, etc. She perceives herself to be a misfit that does not belong and anticipates social rejection and exclusion. When she is turned down from friendship or a job, she sees this as confirmation of his negative core belief and is triggered to re-experience childhood pain. Lack of lovability goes with shame, sadness, and depression.
The good news is that the negative self-beliefs formed in childhood consequent to abuse or neglect can be vanquished. This occurs when the client re-lives the painful experiences that formed the beliefs, understands how they arose, and becomes able to reject them as the logical interpretation of a child’s mind seeking to account for and cope with a miserable childhood. This process requires step-by-step progress in therapy as the client wades deeper and deeper into the waters of what is the emotional truth of her life.
At Healing Pathways, the interns are skilled in a variety of treatment modalities that can help clients process their childhood trauma and reach emotional freedom without constraint by negative self-beliefs that do not match up with reality. These modalities include EMDR, brainspotting, psychodynamic psychotherapy, expressive arts therapy, narrative therapy, hakomi, and compassionate inquiry. Our therapists can also teach clients how to respond effectively to being triggered by another person or event that brings up their most painful self-belief. We teach clients mindfulness, meditation, guided imagery, the flash technique, tapping in, and a variety of skills for self-calming and self-soothing. Potential clients who share the challenges discussed in this blog are encouraged to learn more about these therapies and ask for a therapist intern at Healing Pathways who uses the therapy that seems like the most promising or the best fit.
Felitti, V.J. et al. (1998) Relationship of child abuse and household dysfunction to many of the leading causes of death in adults, American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 14(4); 245-258, doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/S0749-3797(98)00017-8
Perry, B.D. and Szalavitz, M. (2006). The boy who was raised as a dog and other stories from a child psychiatrist’s notebook: What traumatized children can teach us about loss, love, and healing. New York: NY. Basic Books.
Miller, A. (2007). The drama of the gifted child: The search for the true self. New York: NY. Basic Books.
Do you notice you are staring at one spot when you are trying to remember something? Developed by Dr. David Grand, Brainspotting trauma therapy helps you to process your unresolved trauma by finding a spot for your eyes to focus on.
Grand first discovered this phenomenon while performing Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy for his client. EMDR uses bilateral, dual stimulation to help you store your traumatic memories into the right perspectives in your brain (Shapiro, 2018). In this case, David was guiding his client to move her eyes from side to side.
He realized that “her eyes wobbled dramatically and then locked in place” (Grand, 2013, p. 13) during the process. Intuitively, he felt she wanted to stop and look at a fixed spot, so he let her. After a while, memories she had forgotten came up like it opened the floodgates.
Brainspotting doesn’t require describing traumatic experiences by using your words. Traumas are “largely the result of primitive responses” (Levine, 1997, p.24). Many traumatized individuals were not able to express their feelings because they cannot describe their body sensations (Van der Kolk, 2014, p. 100). Moreover, “the rational brain” (p. 47) is incapable of talking “the emotional brain out of its own reality” (Van der Kolk, 2014, p. 47).
With your therapist present, you can try to feel your body sensations and bring up emotions attached to your traumatic experiences. Trauma therapy can be overwhelming. It sounds terrifying, but with brainspotting trauma therapy, you get to decide how you want to process your trauma.
Grand, D. (2013). Brainspotting. Boulder, CO: Sounds True
Shapiro, F. (2018). Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) Therapy. New York, NY: The Gilford Press
Van der Kolk, B (2014). The Body Keeps the Score. New York, NY: Penguin Books