EMDR Therapy :: Getting "Unstuck" And Healing The Nervous System

As a psychotherapist and coach in Manhattan, I treat clients with a range of concerns from stress and life challenges to recovery from addictions and trauma. Many have suffered developmental trauma(s) or single incident trauma and now have symptoms of PTSD which impacts many aspects of their lives, including personal relationships and work. In order to understand EMDR, one needs to be clear about how trauma can affect the brain.

When an individual experiences a traumatic event or multiple traumas they may develop what is known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD as a response to the overwhelming event(s). When this occurs, the brain fails to successfully process the trauma leaving it "stuck" or "frozen" in the central nervous system. This often leads to numbness, dissociation, severe anxiety, depression, insomnia, addictions, physical complaints and an inability to experience "safety." In everyday life, in the "here and now," the body fails to recognize that the person is now "safe" and it reacts as though the danger is current and in present time, leaving the individual in a state of emotional and physical arousal.

EMDR therapy as a treatment is unique because it facilitates the processing of trauma information that has become "stuck" in the central nervous system. The various elements of EMDR therapy serve to rewire the brain, calm the nervous system and lessen anxiety and symptoms. It "uploads" a more corrective experience, moving the client from pain and danger to "I survived," "It wasn't my fault" or "I'm okay" as examples. Brain scans have actually captured information transferring from one side of a brain to another as a person experiences an EMDR session.

The same cannot be said for other forms of therapies such as CBT or Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Historically, we have used talk-based therapies, CBT or medication to ameliorate the symptoms associated with PTSD. EMDR can be viewed as a form of CBT and some would say there are elements of hypnosis as well. Medication can be used to provide symptomatic relief while undergoing EMDR treatment. 

Talk therapy and a trusting relationship with the therapist is absolutely necessary and supportive for the duration of the treatment, but often, the brain will begin to loop back into the trauma with traditional talk therapy, and the cycle will begin again. We now know that individuals with PTSD have limbic systems that are more active then non-PTSD therapy clients. Psychotherapy or talk therapy may not "de-condition" the limbic system in ways that provide optimal healing and clients experience extreme frustration as they work diligently in sessions and experience little symptomatic relief. Additionally, the retelling of their trauma experiences often leaves them feeling re-traumatized and even more vulnerable.

More information about EMDR Treatment...

Regarding the neurobiology of trauma we now know that early childhood trauma causes "synaptic pruning" which predisposes a person to developing PTSD.  A traumatic event "freezes" the integrative processes of the brain; the information is then stored in a fragmented form in parts of the brain. Many individuals with trauma histories have lost the capacity to analyze and categorize arousing information because they can't always "talk" about it and the more "rational" parts of the brain are then "locked out" of the process. In short, the person attempting to talk their way to healing cannot utilize language in a way that allows them to gain the necessary distance from the painful stimulus. EMDR uses specific protocols to create distance so that the trauma can be reprocessed and fully integrated into both hemispheres of the brain. The grip of hyper-arousal and body tension is then decreased for the client and the nervous system can ease into a new calm.

After successful EMDR treatment the original trauma targets are less activating for clients. It doesn't go away completely, but symptoms of distress are greatly reduced. In short, the brain is not as primed to experience stimuli as traumatic and better able to attend to more neutral stimuli going forward.

In my opinion, the real beauty of EMDR treatment lies in its ability to provide the nervous system with calming, supportive experiences and images that serve the recovering client well after treatment has ended. The client is empowered with an enhanced capacity to self-soothe and call upon nurturing and supportive images, feelings and emotions, which creates a sense of safety. Feelings of terror and helplessness are replaced with positive emotions and the new belief that one has power and efficacy in the here and now, and in their lives. When it comes to "un-freezing" trauma, the powerful combination of a supportive therapist and the wisdom of mind/body integration may provide superior treatment, helping "stuck" clients become finally "unstuck."

EMDR successfully treats trauma-related symptoms, as well as performance issues, addiction, substance abuse, depression, nightmares, fears, anxiety, panic disorder, eating disorders, health concerns, health fears, insomnia, sexual abuse and trauma, emotional abuse issues, bullying, neglect, abandonment, relationship problems, breaking negative patterns and dynamics and more.