Trauma is a pervasive problem. It results from exposure to an incident or series of events that are emotionally disturbing or life-threatening with lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional, and/or spiritual well-being.
Experiences that may be traumatic include:
- Physical, sexual, and emotional abuse
- Childhood neglect
- Living with a family member with mental health or substance use disorders
- Sudden, unexplained separation from a loved one
- Racism, discrimination, and oppression
- Violence in the community, war, or terrorism
Although trauma can occur at any age, it has particularly debilitating long-term effects on children’s developing brains. Often referred to as adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), exposure to these experiences is common across all sectors of society:
Protective factors, such as supportive relationships with family members, a teacher, or others in the community, can help shield individuals from the effects of trauma and build resilience to help overcome adversity and confront challenges. Trauma-informed approaches to care, including relational healing and trauma-specific treatments, can help patients begin processing their experiences in a healthy way.
THE SCIENCE OF TRAUMA
Although the field of trauma-informed care is still coalescing, our understanding about how people’s brains and bodies respond to trauma — and the negative long-term effects of toxic stress on health — is well understood. Toxic stress is an emotional and/or physical response that occurs when a person experiences strong, frequent, and/or prolonged adversity without adequate support.
How does trauma affect neurobiology and the physical development of children?
In the first 1,000 days of life, children’s brains are in a critical period of development. Trauma can negatively impact areas in the brain responsible for cognitive functions, such as short-term memory and emotional regulation. This is due in part to the fact that the body regulates stress through the release of two critical hormones: cortisol and adrenaline. Exposure to these stress hormones plays an important role in keeping people safe during times of danger; however, repeated or prolonged exposure is associated with poorer early childhood brain development.
What does experiencing childhood trauma mean for adults?
Adults who experienced trauma in childhood are often “wired” differently than those who did not. Their brains, primed to deal with nearly constant stress, can struggle to respond appropriately to situations that would otherwise appear normal and non-threatening. This partly explains why many adult trauma survivors struggle with depression, anxiety, and other issues related to emotional regulation. These resulting mental health issues can contribute to long-term difficulties maintaining healthy relationships, and lead to problems at school and/or work.
Why do traumatic experiences impact some people more than others?
Many children facing abuse and neglect carry the markers of stress, such as increased cortisol levels, well past the time of exposure. Exactly how stress alters the structure of our brains — and even our DNA — is not yet fully understood. However, research has shown that “protective factors,” such as a loving caregiver, can decrease the impact of traumatic events.
EMDR therapy has proven to be effective in treating trauma and PTSD. It may also be able to help treat other mental conditions like anxiety, depression, and panic disorders.
Some people may prefer this treatment to prescription medications, which can have unexpected side effects. Others may find that EMDR therapy strengthens the effectiveness of their medications.
What is EMDR therapy?
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy is an interactive psychotherapy technique used to relieve psychological stress. It is an effective treatment for trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
During EMDR therapy sessions, you relive traumatic or triggering experiences in brief doses while the therapist directs your eye movements.
EMDR is thought to be effective because recalling distressing events is often less emotionally upsetting when your attention is diverted. This allows you to be exposed to the memories or thoughts without having a strong psychological response.
Over time, this technique is believed to lessen the impact that the memories or thoughts have on you.
What are the benefits of EMDR therapy?
People who are dealing with traumatic memories and those who have PTSD are thought to benefit the most from EMDR therapy.
It’s thought to be particularly effective for those who struggle to talk about their past experiences.
Although there is not sufficient research to prove its effectiveness in these areas, EMDR therapy is also being used to treat:
- panic attacks
- eating disorders
How effective is EMDR therapy?
Multiple independent and controlled studies have shown that EMDR therapy is an effective treatment for PTSD. It’s even one of the Department of Veterans Affairs’ strongly recommended options to treat PTSD.
A 2012 study of 22 people found that EMDR therapy helped 77 percent of the individuals with psychotic disorder and PTSD. It found that their hallucinations, delusions, anxiety, and depression symptoms were significantly improved after treatment. The study also found that symptoms were not exacerbated during treatment.
An older studyTrusted Source that compared EMDR therapy to typical prolonged exposure therapy, found that EMDR therapy was more effective in treating symptoms. The study also found that EMDR therapy had a lower dropout rate from participants. Both, however, offered a reduction in the symptoms of traumatic stress, including both anxiety and depression.
Several small studies have also found evidence that EMDR therapy is not only effective in the short term, but that its effects can be maintained long term. One 2004 study evaluated people several months after they were given either “standard care” (SC) treatment for PTSD or EMDR therapy.
During and immediately after treatment, they noticed that EMDR was significantly more efficient in reducing symptoms of PTSD. During the three- and six-month follow-ups, they also recognized that participants maintained these benefits long after the treatment had ended. Overall, the study found that EMDR therapy gave people a longer-lasting reduction in symptoms than SC.
In regard to depression, one study of 32 peopleTrusted Source conducted in an inpatient setting found that EMDR therapy shows promise in treating the disorder. The study found that 68 percent of the people in the EMDR group showed full remission after treatment. The EMDR group also showed a stronger decrease in depressive symptoms overall. Because of the small sample size, more research is needed.
What to know before you try EMDR therapy
EMDR therapy is considered to be safe, with many fewer side effects than those of prescription medications. That said, there are some side effects that you may experience.
EMDR therapy causes a heightened awareness of thinking which does not end immediately when a session does. This can cause light-headedness. It can also cause vivid, realistic dreams.
It often takes several sessions to treat PTSD with EMDR therapy. This means that it doesn’t work overnight.
The beginning of therapy may be exceptionally triggering to people starting to deal with traumatic events, specifically because of the heightened focus. While the therapy will likely be effective in the long run, it may be emotionally stressful to move through the course of treatment.
Talk to your therapist about this when you start treatment so you’ll know how to cope if you experience these symptoms.
If you think EMDR therapy is right for you, make an appointment with one of our EMDR trained therapist.
(Source: Relationship of Childhood Abuse and Household Dysfunction to Many of the Leading Causes of Death in Adults)