How to Help the Brain Relieve Stress with EMDR
Many of us deal with tremendous stress every day. Too much stress can damage our sense of wellbeing. We may struggle with a relationship, a job, an illness, or powerlessness about violence and problems in the news. But if we feel too overwhelmed our mental health can suffer.
Stress hormones flood through the body when we feel unsafe, or when we see others in pain even if they’re far away. The signals to fight, flee, or go numb have physiological effects on our bodies even if we’re not directly involved in whatever is happening. We’re still “experiencing” part of that.
How do we cope? Many people seek relief by overworking, eating too much, drinking too much, disappearing for hours behind a screen, or feeling detached and helpless. Memories of feeling useless or small may underscore a sense of being stuck. So we cope as best as we can. What else can we do?
Do you notice coping skills that make you feel bad about yourself, or that are doing more harm than good? That’s an important sign it’s time to check in with yourself. If coping with stress means trying to escape it, and feeling ashamed, you may be facing more than stress. You may be dealing with trauma.
Is it Everyday Stress, Or Is It Trauma?
Here’s how therapist and author Dr. Gabor Maté defines trauma:
People think of trauma as these terrible things that happen to you. Those are traumatic, but they’re not the trauma. The trauma is what happens inside of you as a result of those things. And what happens is a shutdown of the self…. So trauma ultimately is disconnection from the self, and from the present moment.Dr .Gabor Maté
Many people don’t believe their hardships are severe enough to damage them, or to warrant therapy. They don’t see themselves struggling with untreated trauma or having one foot in the past, and one in the present. But if you endure negative self-talk or trouble resolving stress each day, trauma may be a factor in your life. Finding healing instead of temporary escape is a very good reason to get help. One particularly useful therapy is EMDR.
EMDR – Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing — is an important, powerful method to help reconnect with the self. When you fully process what hurts, you can find healthier, more self-affirming ways to respond to the challenges in your present life.
How EMDR Helps Resolve Stress or Trauma
EMDR helps tone down the power of negative thoughts, so we can integrate painful experiences into daily life, rather than shut down to avoid them. It helps us look at pain objectively so we can respond better, remain calmer, and function in situations that used to overwhelm us.
EMDR follows a series of 8 phases. Paraphrased from the EMDR International Association EMIDRA these are:
1) Client history and treatment planning – You and the therapist talk to identify the main issues you want to address. The therapist can begin to understand change you want to make, while helping your avoid going into re-traumatizing detail.
2) Preparation – The therapist helps you explore your experience. You work to strengthen skills to become more aware of your painful experiences in healthy ways.
3) Assessment – You choose specific “blocking beliefs,” negative thoughts or self-concepts that you want to re-think and reprocess in the session.
4, 5 and 6) Reprocessing: These steps allow you to revisit a negative belief, the painful emotions associated with them, and disarm them. This allows new positive ideas to emerge. Bi-lateral stimulus – back-and-forth eye movements, sounds, or taps — activate both sides of the brain. Both logic and emotion can help you recognize positive facts and strengths about yourself that are also true.
7 and 8) Closure and Reevaluation – These steps allow you end the session feeling in full control of your emotions. You review your new understanding, and determine how effective the session has been.
How EMDR Activates the Brain
EMDR works primarily by activating the two hemispheres of the brain – the left and the right – the logical and emotional parts, generally speaking. During this activation, you bring to mind a few target negative ideas, called blocking beliefs. With time and gentle reflection, you can see the larger truths that emerge from a different angle.
When therapist Francine Shapiro first discovered the power of back-and-forth stimulus, eye movements provided the original movement in EMDR. Today therapists can also use sounds — buzzers or beeps – that alternate in each ear. Using eye movements or alternating sounds – along with the 8-phase process – allows you to use your brain more fully as you revisit a traumatic situation in therapy.
EMDR Targets Beliefs That Keep You Stuck
In early-phase sessions, an EMDR therapist helps you target painful messages you struggling with now, and the life experience they came from. These are called blocking beliefs. They are negative messages like:
- I’m incapable
- I’m a failure
- I’m not safe
- I’m not trustworthy
- I’m unlovable
Reprocessing allows you to realize the greater truth of the situation, such as:
- I was a child
- They took advantage of my dependence and inexperience
- It wasn’t my job to protect them; it was the other way around
- I didn’t do anything wrong
Some of the positive messages you might take from these new observations, feelings, and your present life are the result of reprocessing:
- I am trustworthy
- I don’t have to be perfect
- I’m learning, and that’s okay
- I’m not in that place anymore
- I’m safe here
- I feel good about myself
Blocking Beliefs Are Like Thorns in Your Mind
A helpful way to see how EMDR helps heal trauma is the analogy of a splinter.
If you have a splinter in your toe, it interferes with everything you do. Every step hurts. You walk differently to avoid jabbing pain. Your body keeps responding to heal the injury, but it can’t get rid of the splinter.
But as soon as you stop and remove the splinter, your pain level goes down immediately. Your body can finally make repairs. You move on freely, because your body already knows how to heal – you just needed to let both sides of the injury connect.
Blocking beliefs are like splinters in your in your patterns of thinking. Once you identify them and remove them, your brain can take care of the healing process.
An EMDR Therapist Can Help
As an EMDR therapist, I work as a facilitator for that natural healing process. I work to make sure that you are able to stay aware of the present as you recall the source of the pain you’re in. When you grasp the full story of your past, and pull out the whole truth – the negative and the positive — your brain can do the healing. Your brain knows what to do.
You can target negativity from any type of experience, whether from a catastrophic event or a series of private struggles. Your target can simply be a negative belief about yourself.
You’ll know EMDR is effective when your present self can reflect on your past to remind you that:
- You’re safe
- You’re okay
- You’re here in the present moment
- The memories and fears are from the past
- You’ve got this
We Are Here for You
We have therapists trained and experienced in EMDR therapy, and other methods as well. Call to learn how we can help you in Alexandria, VA: 703-768-6240