When people think of trauma, they usually think of “big T traumas,” those experiences that meet the criteria of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), including war experiences, natural disasters, rape, and severe car accidents. However, less commonly talked about are “little t traumas,” which result from things that build over time, such as ongoing emotional abuse and neglect, experiences of shame, humiliation, being bullied, left out, ridiculed, and feeling not cared for.

In 1987, psychologist Dr. Francine Shapiro realized that, under certain conditions, eye movements reduce intense disturbing emotions. Since that time, EMDR has been developed as a treatment for trauma (big T and little t traumas). Studies show EMDR also works for people experiencing depression, anxiety, phobias, stress, complicated grief, panic attacks, personality disorders, eating disorders, pain disorders, addictions, physical and sexual abuse, and more.

Trauma and EMDR

During trauma, or “fight or flight” mode, information is processed differently than in calm moments. During a traumatic experience, the body shuts down certain (unnecessary) systems and redirects blood flow to large muscles in the body (this explains how a person might physically be able to lift a car if someone is trapped underneath). Brain functions also operate differently. It is as if time slows down, allowing the person to take in more information, including little details that might save his or her life.

One result of trauma, however, is that pieces of memory are not integrated neatly as they are during calm moments. Memory fragments are stored in different parts of the brain and body, and can include any and all of the senses: sights, sounds, smells, touch, or taste. When a fragment of the memory is accessed, or “stumbled upon,” it can trigger the original trauma, resulting in a re-experiencing of the same feelings experienced during the original trauma. In order to unlock those fragments and allow memory integration to take place, blocks must be removed along the way to allow clear passage through the information processing system without getting caught or “stuck” at any certain point. Think of it as a train and the blockage is on the train track. If blocks on the track are removed, the train can reach the final destination.

EMDR works by moving dysfunctional information (memory fragments) encoded physiologically in the body during trauma along the information processing system, and the result is more functional information (memory integration). EMDR can result in the memories of the event becoming less intense, the “image” becoming less vivid, and the resolution of disturbing emotions. People who complete EMDR therapy report a number of changes, including fewer (or no) trauma-related nightmares, better quality sleep, an increase in self-esteem, less anxiety and depression, and better relationships. This is not a complete list; your experience may vary. EMDR is not for everyone, talk to your therapist to determine if EMDR is a good fit for you.

RuthAnne Alexander is an EMDR-trained therapist offering EMDR therapy to children and adults. Learn more about EMDR at the following websites: http://www.emdr.com/client-session.html and http://www.emdrmovie.com/ under “Video Clips.”