Healing from Trauma & EMDR
Healing From Trauma
When I was 20 years old I started my very first job in the field of mental health, at a residential treatment facility for kids and teens. I didn’t quite know what I was getting myself into, but I was so excited to begin my career as a helping professional.
The job had some really fun parts, I got to play basketball with kids, take them to the therapy garden and lead fun activities. There were also some really painful parts: hearing the kids’ stories, experiencing them lash out at me or others in anger, and having to restrain them when they got violent. During my time there I was hit, kicked, bitten and scratched, as aggression was often these kids’ only accessible tool to manage their trauma.
Over my three years of working there I started to notice changes in myself. My stomach started getting upset on a regular basis. I became jaded about the stories and more anxious in my personal life. I would cry at home and not really know why. I started to realize that being around trauma was traumatizing me, and I needed to take a break. This led me to grad school and a coffee shop job, with the hope of learning about trauma and what to do about it.
Adverse Childhood Experiences and Trauma
Since then so much has changed in the mental health field in regards to trauma. The ACES (Adverse Childhood Experiences) study has become widely known, which is one of the largest investigations of childhood abuse and neglect and how those impact physical health and mental well-being later in life. The study has created a call-to-arms for those in healthcare, as it is now known how intensely adverse childhood experiences and traumas impact the body. One example of this is the link found between childhood sexual abuse and cancer in adulthood by Brown, Thacker, and Cohen. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23776494
The ACES study made it known that trauma and adverse childhood experiences are widespread in modern America and are happening every day in our homes. Research by the CDC has shown that one in five Americans have been sexually molested as a child, one in four was beaten by a parent to the point of a mark being left, one of three couples has engaged in physical violence, one in four Americans grew up with alcoholic relatives, and one in eight witnessed their mother being hit. The kids I worked with at the treatment center were living illustrations of these realities and how they impact children.
Healing from Trauma
Bessel Van Der Kolk explores trauma and its impact on the body extensively in his book The Body Keeps the Score. He summarizes the various ways to heal from trauma, sharing that it often takes a combination of methods, including:
- 1. Top down, by talking, connecting with others, and allowing ourselves to know and understand what is going on with us, while processing the memories of the trauma.
- By taking medications that shut down inappropriate alarm reactions, or by utilizing other technologies that change the way the brain organizes information.
- Bottom up: by allowing the body to have experiences that deeply and viscerally contradict the helplessness, rage, or collapse that result from trauma.
While a combination of traditional talk therapy and yoga or massage can be an effective combination, another therapy has emerged in the last twenty years that combines both method number one and three, and is used and recommended by Van Der Kolk, called EMDR. EMDR, or eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, utilizes the brain’s capacity to process memories in order to heal from traumas. While it would take a whole other blog post to explain the theory and the neuroscience behind it, here is how I explain it to my clients, which is directly from my EMDR institute handbook:
When a disturbing event occurs, it can get locked in the brain with the original picture, sounds, thoughts, feelings and body sensations, EMDR seems to stimulate the information and allows the brain to reprocess the experience. That may be what is happening in R.E.M. Or dream sleep—the eye movements help to reprocess the associated material. It is your own brain that will be doing the healing and you are the one in control.
The evidence and support of EMDR is astounding. The EMDR institute states,
“The World Health Organization has stated that trauma-focused CBT and EMDR are the only psychotherapies recommended for children, adolescents, and adults with PTSD. Like CBT with a trauma focus, EMDR aims to reduce subjective distress and strengthen adaptive cognitions related to the traumatic event. Unlike CBT with a trauma focus, EMDR does not involve (a) detailed descriptions of the event, (b) direct challenging of beliefs, (c) extended exposure, or (d) homework.” Learning about the effectiveness of EMDR to help people like the children I worked with at the treatment center has caused me to dive deeply into the training and offer EMDR to my clients.
EMDR and Hope
If you have had an adverse childhood experience, a recent trauma, or even a difficult situation that you cannot get out of your mind, EMDR may be a helpful treatment for you. You can find a list of EMDR trained therapists here: http://www.emdr.com/SEARCH/index.php or connect with His Heart Foundation here: https://hisheartfoundation.org/request-a-counselor-referral/
As I think about my traumatic experience working in residential, I now have hope since I have a deeper understanding of trauma as well as a recognition of the brain’s profound capacity to heal. Also, I had a session of EMDR about my experience at that job and it was very helpful.
Questions for Reflection:
Have you experienced EMDR therapy? What was it like? Feel free to comment below.
The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel Van Der Kolk
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