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Tired of Coping with Trauma Reactions? Get to the Root of it

How EMDR and Brainspotting Can Help

Recovering from PTSD and other trauma reactions is possible, and it it takes time, courage, compassion and patience. To understand how to heal trauma, we need to understand how it is stored in our body physiologically and how our brain works. A leading trauma expert summarizes well the problem with traditional talk therapy alone:

“Psychologists usually try to help people use insight and understanding to manage their behavior. However, neuroscience research shows that very few psychological problems are the result of defects in understanding; most originate in pressures from deeper regions in the brain that drive our perception and attention. When the alarm bell of the emotional brain keeps signaling that you are in danger, no amount of insight will silence it.

-Bessel A. van der Kolk from “The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma”

I’m going to get scientific on you for a minute, but try to follow me, it is important! Research indicates traumatic memories are stored differently in the brain and body than regular memories. During a traumatic event, the left pre-cortical area of the brain is inhibited (the part of brain responsible for language and analytical processing) and the right hemisphere and limbic system lights up (the parts of the brain responsible for processing sensory information and emotion). This is why people often have difficulty putting words to the trauma or remembering the order of what exactly happened but may still feel very connected to it physiologically (still experiencing rush of blood, panic attacks, emotional sensations, sights, sounds, smells, etc). Because the traumatic memory is stored in the sub cortex, limbic system and right hemisphere of the brain, not connected to language, we also must approach healing the brain in such a way where we can activate this encapsulated information and reprocess this, also without language. Many people wonder why we can’t use our thinking, language-based brain and insight to address traumatic memories. This has to do with the way information flows in our brain: it more readily flows from the bottom of our brain and body up (sub cortex to neo cortex) than vice versa. This is not to say that we can’t use our conscious, thinking brain to learn coping skills and strategies for our anxiety and trauma reactions until we are able to reprocess it, it just means that we may not actually heal the injury through talk therapy only. We need to use body-based approaches to make the needed change like EMDR, Brainspotting, Somatic Experiencing, EFT, and Splankna.

In this article, I will speak to Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) and Brainspotting as these are the approaches I’ve found to be most helpful though I utilize others as well in my practice. The underlying belief of these techniques is that our brains will move towards health and integration when we give it the resources to heal, and I have found this to be the case in my practice as well. The theory is that when we activate the traumatic memory through focusing our attention on some aspect of it (what we saw, heard, felt, etc) then add bilateral stimulation or fixed eye gaze, our nervous system will help us to reprocess the memory so as to be able to identify what was of danger or what wasn’t so that we are no longer stuck reliving it on the daily basis as in the past. In a way, it gets us out of the freeze response through playing the memory back to us in a safe environment and relationship so that we come to a completion in the processing. Before we get to this reprocessing, there is often other groundwork and skills we need to establish together so that the you safe and empowered to look at the past. During the reprocessing session (which is impossible to explain unless you’ve experienced it), the subconscious mind brings to your awareness thoughts, images, body sensations and feelings related to the event in a sort of flow (even as you are completely conscious and able to stop at any time). It may take one session or numerous depending on each individual’s background. When a memory has been completely processed, individuals are able to remember and talk about the trauma, but the emotional overwhelm and intrusive physiological symptoms are greatly decreased or gone. Brain scans of individuals before and after EMDR treatments show that their brain activity actually changes. 

If you have questions about these techniques, theoretical background or are interested in getting healing from your symptoms of PTSD after a trauma, please call at 720-722-1434 or contact me here.

"All too often, however, drugs such as Abilify, Zyprexa, and Seroquel, are prescribed instead of teaching people the skills to deal with such distressing physical reactions. Of course, medications only blunt sensations and do nothing to resolve them or transform them from toxic agents into allies. The mind needs to be reeducated to feel physical sensations, and the body needs to be helped to tolerate and enjoy the comforts of touch. Individuals who lack emotional awareness are able, with practice, to connect their physical sensations to psychological events. Then they can slowly reconnect with themselves.” – Bessel A. van der Kolk, "The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma"
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