When people think of trauma, they usually think of “big T traumas,” those experiences that meet the criteria of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), including war experiences, natural disasters, rape, and severe car accidents. However, less commonly talked about are “little t traumas,” which result from things that build over time, such as ongoing emotional abuse and neglect, experiences of shame, humiliation, being bullied, left out, or ridiculed.
In 1987, Dr. Francine Shapiro realized that, under certain conditions, eye movements reduce intense disturbing emotions. Since that time, EMDR has been developed as a treatment for trauma (big T and little t traumas). Studies show EMDR also works for people experiencing depression, anxiety, phobias, stress, complicated grief, panic attacks, eating disorders, pain disorders, physical and sexual abuse, and more.
Trauma and EMDR
During trauma, or “fight or flight”, information is processed differently than in calm moments. During a traumatic experience, the body shuts down certain systems and redirects blood flow to large muscles in the body. Brain functions also operate differently. It is as if time slows down, allowing the person to take in more information, including details that might save their life.
One result of trauma, however, is that pieces of memory are not integrated neatly as they are during calm moments. Memory fragments are stored in different parts of the brain and body, and can include any and all of the senses: sights, sounds, smells, touch, or taste. When a fragment of the memory is accessed, or “stumbled upon,” it can trigger the original trauma, resulting in a re-experiencing of the same feelings experienced during the original trauma. In order to unlock those fragments and allow memory integration to take place, blocks must be removed along the way to allow clear passage through the information processing system without getting caught or “stuck” at any certain point. Think of it as a train and the blockage is on the train track. If blocks on the track are removed, the train can reach the final destination.