Trauma may be caused by violence, abuse or neglect to oneself or by witnessing another undergo a life-threatening event. The memory system in our brain at times does not store traumatic experiences in the same way that it stores non-traumatic experiences. Normally, ordinary events or experiences are moved from short-term to long-term memory storage and are recalled realistically as having happened a long time ago.
Some traumatic experiences, that is, experiences that at the time feel life-threatening, on the other hand, can be held in a part of the brain that doesn’t release them to long term memory storage, but rather holds them in a way that makes those past memories feel very present. This can lead to the person reacting as they did at the time of the trauma. The brain has recorded the past disturbing event as if it is happening now.
A more extreme case of this process can lead to PTSD, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The symptomatology of PTSD can include intrusive memories of the traumatic event, general fearfulness, and loss of a sense of safety, even when the individual is safe.
The person may experience PTSD in “flashbacks” or somatic or emotional reactivity when something happens in the present (a “trigger”) that may be similar to the original traumatic experience or that has even one element that recalls the disturbing event. The ongoing effects of trauma may be less obvious but experienced by the individual in the form of anxiety or diminished self-worth.
EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing) helps to move the storage of the traumatic memory to a more functional part of the brain that can experience the event as actually being in the past. The process of EMDR actually produces a physical change in the brain that shifts the location of information contained in the traumatic memory. It is now safely stored in long-term memory and is not triggered by current experiences.
EMDR utilizes the body to achieve this transfer of information in the form of tactile, auditory and visual bilateral stimulation (similar to REM sleep) and in this way can be seen as promoting the natural, self-healing potential of the mind/body continuum. It helps create the connections between your brain’s memory networks, enabling your brain to process the traumatic memory.
To learn more about EMDR, visit http://www.emdria.org/about-emdr-therapy/