EMDR, or Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, is a widely accepted treatment for PTSD. It has been recognized as a top trauma treatment by organizations such as the World Health Organization (WHO), American Psychiatric Association (APA), Department of Veterans Affairs & Department of Defense, and SAHMHSA’s National Registry of Evidence-based Programs and Practices. This process is explained by EMDR’s AIP model, which I explain more fully here. While this model of course explains why EMDR is so effective at treating symptoms of PTSD, it also explains why EMDR is effective at treating other mental health disorders such as anxiety, depression, and substance use.
By dictionary definition, anything that has happened to you that had a lasting negative effect on yourself or your mental health is, by nature, “traumatic.” This can include major traumas such as assault, natural disaster, combat, etc.- criterion A for a PTSD diagnosis. Those aren’t the only types of events that can lead to insufficiently processed memories that contribute to dysfunctional traits, behaviors, affects, and body sensations. This can also include household dysfunction, humiliations suffered in childhood, being disciplined physically as a child (not to the degree of being considered child abuse, though that could be targeted in EMDR as well), verbal abuse from classmates, etc. These situations are just the tip of the iceberg and are often referred to as “small t” traumas. While these experiences cannot be designated as “trauma” for a PTSD diagnosis, due to the emotional impact, the memory of these events can be locked in your brain and can have a similar effect to that of those “big T” traumas listed above, and can follow you well into adulthood.
In EMDR we have a phrase, “the past is present.” Essentially, when something happens in the present, it links into the existing memory network to be understood, and this connection is the basis of current reactions. Let’s say, for example, when you were younger, you were often yelled at by a parent for any wrongdoing. The memories of being yelled at would be encoded with emotions (embarrassment, sadness, anger, shame, etc.), beliefs (“I’m unlovable” “It’s not safe to be me,” “I’m not good enough,” etc.), and body sensations (muscle tension, lump in your throat, etc.). Now let’s say you’re 30 years old and your boss reprimands you during a meeting. You may be pulled into that memory network of getting in trouble when you were a child. In that meeting, you may feel just as humiliated as you felt being chastised by your parents when you were 7 years old. You may get that same muscle tension, that same lump in your throat. You may feel that same belief of “I’m not good enough” come up for you. You may even respond the way you did as a child- maybe you blush and look down, or maybe you even get up and storm out. The past is present. Your experiences in your past can influence the way you think, feel, and behave in response to present-day triggers.
The memories from childhood that led to hurt, humiliation, shame, etc. may be unprocessed memories stored in the brain. Because they’re inadequately processed, they’ll continue to show up in everyday situations such as the one listed above, getting cut off on the highway, running late to work, your significant other canceling plans, or your friend forgetting to text you back. Your brain will be continuously pulled into these “small t” trauma networks, causing you to feel dysregulated regularly and can show up in mental health diagnoses like generalized anxiety disorder, major depressive disorder, and substance use disorders. In EMDR, we would target those neural networks, and heal them. Doing so will help you resolve the dysfunctional emotional responses, thought patterns, and behaviors that formed as a result of those unprocessed memories. We would help your brain make new, appropriate, and adaptive connections, helping you resolve those feelings and beliefs, and leading you to feeling healed and empowered.
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About the Author
Maria Mangione (she/her), M.A., LPCC is a licensed clinical counselor who specializes in dialectical behavior therapy. Maria works to help people develop the tools they need to develop trust in themselves and build their life worth living. Maria believes in having meaningful connections with her clients and believes that therapy and healing can be fun. Click Here to learn more about Maria’s experience and therapeutic style.