You can recover from trauma with EMDR Therapy
From Emotional Injury to Full Recovery
Danielle (link to previous post) was able to return to her daily life after her car accident with a few bumps and bruises. As weeks went by, then months, she started to notice her increased vigilance and anxiety when riding in cars as a passenger. It was over a year and a half later that she learned about EMDR and that she could get help for her emotional trauma.
Yes, this is Trauma
Physical trauma is often easier for people to identify. When the body has been deeply impacted and is not functioning well, the signs are usually obvious. Often a cast, bruising, or bandage alerts family and friends to how much physical impact has been endured. However, many people are simply uninformed, ignoring or even dismissing emotional traumas.
What is emotional trauma? Before I answer, let’s talk about the brain. One metaphor that can help us is to imagine that the brain is continuously sorting and filing packages (of information), like the receiving department at a large warehouse. Our brain is constantly receiving packages. They are coming in from all your senses and from memories. In day to day life, when we are moving through manageable and predictable scenarios, we are able to process at almost the same rate as we receive it. Some research suggests that the REM sleep cycle helps with the major processing of sensory packages that we didn’t get to during the day. At such times, the brain’s receiving bays are mostly clear and we are able to manage our lives.
Imagine that the receiving bays at this large warehouse suddenly have a power surge and the equipment and lights shut off. The entire conveyor belt system stops and, for a few moments, all the startled workers freeze in their tracks. However, even though the sorting stops, the packages keep arriving. They start piling up at the brain’s receiving door. As quickly as the power went off, it went back on. Now the brain is left sorting the current arrivals while dealing with a pile of unprocessed packages that get in the way.
Managing continuous input is one thing, but additional resources are required to sort and clear a path. This leads to an incomplete clean-up leaving some packages shoved off to the side of the receiving bay doors. The unexpected system overwhelm slows down the whole sorting process. Over time, you can imagine that most things can get back to normal. Life may be manageable, but sometimes unsorted packages can get in the way.
Emotional trauma might be thought of in a similar way. During an incident of any sort in your life, there may be a temporary overwhelm of the brain’s sorting system and afterwards it may seem as though your ability to manage different areas of life has become a struggle.
There is no external determinant of how the brain will process an event. In other words two people may experience similar events but one person walks away without lasting trauma symptoms while the other still needs to process what happened.
It is important to know that it is tempting to dismiss emotionally traumatic events. Like someone trying to walk away from an accident in shock, ignorant of a possible broken leg, many people walk away from trauma without knowing its impact.
Emotional Trauma of Car Accidents
Danielle experienced overwhelm during the auto collision (sounds, sensations, sights coming in too fast for her brain to sort) and immediately after she experienced disorientation in coming to terms with the accident. She didn’t know that she was dealing with emotional trauma because she was able to continue to manage her day to day life shortly after the accident and had received a clean bill of health from her doctor.
Like the overwhelmed receiving bay, Danielle had many unsorted packages still getting in the way of her enjoyment of life. She had many great resources in life that she could turn to for help (family, friends, community involvement), yet she continued to trip over the emotional trauma of the accident, especially when triggered.
Being triggered means the brain is confusing your present situation with a past one and activating emotions relevant to your past (fear, overwhelm, shock, etc), but not necessarily true for your present. This is common with unprocessed trauma and you can even be triggered by scenarios dissimilar to the original incident. You can easily conclude how Danielle’s brain lumped together the sensations of riding in a car today with the unprocessed emotions of her past. Her traumatic car accident makes her feel anxious and has changed her behavior when riding with others.
EMDR for Emotional Overwhelm from Traumatic Accidents
Danielle was talking with a friend and lamenting her resigned state of embarrassingly sitting in the back seat when going out with friends and family. It was then that she learned about EMDR from a friend. She hadn’t heard of it or even considered that there was a way to recover from her car accident’s emotional trauma. She called up an EMDR-trained therapist and started working through her emotional trauma. Her symptoms reduced and many were eliminated. Now she has no trouble riding in the passenger seat and enjoying her friends and family again in a fresh and renewed way.