Your brain is hardwired to make connections. And it’s really good at doing it.
Walk into a room and you have a reaction. Most likely, it’s nothing substantial — the brain surveys what is around and then acts in response. However, there are times when someone may be triggered by another person, sound, or smell in a negative way that may cause a flight, fight, or freeze reaction.
“Our brain makes associations with all kinds of things all the time because that’s how it works,” says Lampion Center Therapist Andrew Martin. “But sometimes our brain makes associations with things that don’t really add up or don’t really go together, but it’s there.”
Those negative associations caused by trauma, anxiety, depression, addiction, or other mental issues can be addressed by one of the many forms of therapy that are used, with the most common being talk therapy, where a patient sits and discusses issues, situations, and more with a trained therapist, counselor, etc.
But therapy can be more than just talking, and one model that is used successfully in treating an array of issues is Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, referred to as EMDR.
Initially developed by Dr. Francine Shapiro in the 1980s as a treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder, Martin explains the technique uses dual stimulation — simple movements with the hand or other device that a patient follows back and forth with their eyes while they recall their triggering event or issue.
“The theory holds that trauma is experienced in the middle part of our brain that houses our memories and emotions due to the threat reposes cycle. These emotions and memories do not get moved to the front part of our brain for processing. In other words, they’re stuck there,” says Within Sight Partner and Psychotherapist Caron Leader. “EMDR helps them get relocated using dual stimulation, done in multiple, short sets of time while clients’ target a troubling memory.”
To put it simply, think again about connections. EMDR is about weaving your left brain (logic) and your right brain (emotion) together to help understand why we react, explains Susan Milligan, clinical coordinator for counseling services and counselor at Catholic Charities of Evansville. EMDR helps patients get both the left and right brain together to dive into why a reaction occurs, what trauma triggered the reaction, and then drive down the negative belief associated with the trauma, allowing a new positive belief to emerge.
“What’s so interesting is how we responded in the midst of our trauma is oftentimes the way we continue to respond in years well after the trauma occurred when we feel triggered again,” says Milligan. “EMDR is a means by which we can go back and change the narrative of the trauma with far more adaptive, healthy responses.”
“There’s a lot of neuroscience in EMDR as well. It’s this idea that whatever fires together, wires together,” adds Martin. “When I’ve done EMDR with people, we have gotten down to the fact that the triggering event was something very small and very benign. But it led to these dominoes that eventually got bigger and bigger that felt very overwhelming.”
Though the practice of EMDR is widely used, accepted, and found to be very effective, patients simply do not walk off the street into a clinic and request the therapy. Whether a patient is aware of EMDR or not as a possible therapy, all three counselors stress how they assess their patient first before suggesting the technique. The importance doesn’t lie in a client being “right” for the treatment — it’s about the comfort level of the patient.
“The client is always in control. In the midst of a session, if they want to stop, I will always honor that. If I suggest EMDR and they don’t want to try it, then we can use other modalities to meet the goals of care,” says Milligan.
“We educate people about EMDR and other therapy methods, discussing what is more effective for their presenting issue,” adds Leader. “Then we decide together based on what feels right for them.”
If a client chooses to try EMDR therapy, a beginning phase of resourcing happens, where the therapists help their clients learn how to bring down anxiety to stabilize and ground themselves — or become regulated. This helps the client once the therapy moves into processing the targeted traumas or anxieties, so that they do not leave a session uncomfortable or triggered after addressing issues.
You can think about it like grief — when somebody first experiences grief, it’s really intense and very physical. Then overtime, that intensity lessens. EMDR does that — it lessens the intensity of the experience."
— Psychotherapist Caron Leader
Though Martin, Leader, and Milligan all work in different organizations and with all types of patients, each agrees EMDR therapy can accomplish what many clients are seeking — processing their triggers and being able to address them better.
“It looks to pinpoint certain issues very directly. So, it can really get at some of the issues and very specifically at what it is that we’re trying to work on. Another great benefit about this, and a lot of the research shows this too, is it can also move people through therapy much more quickly than it would in other ways,” says Martin.
Milligan has seen the same with her patients. On average, she sees patients working through EMDR find closure to their trauma in four to six sessions. While that is not the case with every client, she says, it certainly has helped many address triggers and anxieties that once seemed impossible to overcome.
“It’s a way to process issues without necessarily just doing talk therapy. It’s another tool for therapists to use in their toolbox,” she says.
According to Leader, though the overall result is a change in thought patterns, the outcome of EMDR therapy is much more as patients change the way the mind and body holds a negative experience, and teaches them how to move that experience not just in the mind, but feel it differently in the body as well.
“You can think about it like grief — when somebody first experiences grief, it’s really intense and very physical. Then over time, that intensity lessens,” she says. “EMDR does that — it lessens the intensity of the experience.”
Help is available for everyone, no matter their socioeconomic status. If you or someone you love is experiencing difficulty processing trauma, anxieties, depression, addiction, etc., trained therapists and counselors are available at Lampion Center, Within Sight, and Catholic Charities to assist.