EMDR and Childhood Trauma
Every adult human being has the natural ability to process events. Children do to, but because our brain and body are still developing, we rely on our caretakers to mirror healthy beliefs and prove to us that we are loved and supported for help to process and make sense of things. When that doesn't happen for whatever reason, the troubling and scary events that happen to us can turn into trauma. Trauma just means that our brain and body wasn't able to file the event away in our memory like it usually does.
It helps to think of our memory system like a filling cabinet. When an event happens in our lives, our brain uses our neural pathways to sort out the information into useful 'file folders' and the 'trash bin'. This is why we usually can't recall every single detail of an event, such as what we wore, however if something significant to us happened on that day we are more likely to remember that. When an event happens that we consider traumatic, it just means that the neural pathways get overloaded and aren't able to file it away correctly. When this happens, our brain preserves the traumatic memory just as it happened, like a movie or a diorama.
Experiencing flashbacks to the traumatic event, recalling it like it's happening again, or feeling overwhelmed and going into 'fight flight freeze or fawn' when triggered are common side effects of unprocessed trauma. When we go into 'fight flight freeze or fawn' it just means our sympathetic nervous system is signaled by our brain and is unable to tell if the danger is happening or if we are responding to the unprocessed trauma, and will react as if we are in danger. This is an automatic hind brain response and usually we will automatically pick one to display. For instance, if 'freezing' (unable to move, think or speak while in danger) kept you alive during a traumatic event as a child, then most likely your hind brain will revert to freezing as an adult when you feel you are in danger. This of course can lead to unwanted results as an adult, so it's important to learn how to counteract it.
So how do we do this? I have found it helpful to think of it as a two part process; Symptom management and trauma processing. Symptom management comes first and is a way to experience relief from unwanted effects of trauma while you are processing and healing it. The vagus nerve is located at the back of our spine and is responsible for activating the 'fight flight freeze or fawn response'. Thankfully the vagus nerve can be stretched like a muscle and with exercising it we can increase its tolerance. Exercises like the vagus nerve reset, drinking hot tea, splashing cold water on your face, moving your body intentionally, getting fresh air are all ways to reset the vagus nerve and switch control back to the prefrontal cortex from the hind brain.
The second part is to heal the trauma. One of the well known ways to process traumatic events is through EMDR. EMDR works to naturally jump start the brain's ability to process events by using eye movements or bilateral stimulation, which naturally happens when we dream. When we have nightmares, that is just our brain trying to process events that happened, but if it's too intense we can get scared and wake up, which will cause us to remember the nightmare.
EMDR works by kick starting that filling system and make sense of what happened. Often times traditional EMDR works and the trauma is processed efficiently. However, if we have negative core beliefs from childhood that tell us we don't deserve happiness, or that life is supposed to be scary or unfair, then those beliefs can block that filing system and the traditional EMDR may not work ,or we may experience resistance to healing. When this happens, modified EMDR can still be used to target and process these negative core beliefs to release the block.
One way to easily identify a negative core belief is to notice our reactions to a situation. If the reaction is disproportionate to the situation and reminds us of something unfair or bad that happened when we were young, it's possible that it's tied to a negative core belief. Often, our negative core beliefs will be colored in black and white thinking or absolutes, and will have a strong negative emotional charge tied to them when you think about it. Experiencing any or all of these results tells us that we are on the right track to identifying these negative core beliefs! Your EMDR therapist can also work with you to identify negative core beliefs.
When the negative core belief is identified, it can be processed in EMDR therapy. Often times our negative core beliefs are formed in childhood because of a traumatic or upsetting event that happened or that we witnessed, and by targeting the negative core belief we also target and process the traumatic event associated with this belief. It is always worth it to reexamine these harmful childhood beliefs because they can be pretty great at helping us stay "stuck" in life, and we deserve to benefit from our body's natural ability to process events. If you are in Washington State or Seattle and interested in trying EMDR over telehealth to process negative core beliefs from childhood, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org to schedule a free 15 min consultation.
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