It is difficult to consider our own experiences with trauma – at least willingly. It’s easier to maintain some distance, to keep the thoughts and feelings at arm’s length, or to minimize them altogether. We can get tricked into a game of comparison and decide that our pain doesn’t meet the threshold of real trauma. That’s something reserved for the military, people who’ve experienced battle, who’ve lost limbs and loved ones, right? We advocate for soldiers with PTSD because we believe they deserve to be taken care of. The mental, emotional, and physical burden of war is too much for anyone to carry alone. But what about you? Why should you be destined to struggle through life with the added weight of your own posttraumatic stress weighing you down?
The reality is that trauma is bigger than a single definition and its effects are felt and processed in more than one way. Frequently, it’s our unresolved traumatic memories that are hardest to tap into and, for that reason, most challenging to address. How you feel about a recent event – even something as tragic as an assault – may be easier to process than the feelings of abandonment you experienced as a child when your parents divorced. At the same time, forever compartmentalizing all of your feelings is an impossible task. Those experiences inform one another. That’s why one painful moment is likely to trigger thoughts, feelings, and memories of other painful moments – even when they seem entirely unrelated to each other. This is especially true when past trauma – and the painful memories that seem to pop up unexpectedly and pull you right back into the experience – hasn’t been dealt with fully. Healing an open wound is impossible, but that doesn’t mean those wounds can’t be treated.
As psychotherapist’s, we’re constantly trying to find better ways of identifying and addressing things unspoken and unseen. Trauma is a prime example. Human beings have largely perfected the art of going through the motions. We’re pros at pushing our pain down and forcing a convincing smile. Career success, dream homes, new cars, vacations, and lovers can become coping mechanisms for our unaddressed trauma, and when those aren’t attainable or no longer work, we find other, more creative, ways of numbing ourselves into whatever will pass for not feeling. It takes work – intentional effort over a period of time – to confront the trauma behind the feelings. At the Social House Wellness Center, we use a technique called EMDR to help our clients do this most effectively.
First of all, EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing. Now you know why we prefer the acronym. First developed in 1987 to treat PTSD, EMDR uses eight unique phases to treat unresolved pain by briefly focusing on a traumatic memory while experiencing bilateral visual stimulation. What we – and other therapists for the last 30+ years – have discovered is that 6-12 sessions of EMDR effectively reduces the vividness and emotion associated with traumatic memories. In one-on-one sessions at Social House, we walk through each of those phases with you in the following order:
- History-taking: This initial phase allows us to work together to understand your background and set clear objectives for treatment, including a specific memory or memories, current triggers, and future outcomes.
- Preparation: During this second phase, we take some time to explain the rationale behind EMDR, introduce the procedures we’ll be using, and practice some of the eye movement techniques. The goal here is to make sure you feel safe, comfortable, and equipped before initiating treatment.
- Assessment: The third phase allows us to take a closer look at the targeted memory and identifies four distinct qualities associated with it: image, cognition, affect, and body sensation. All will be important.
- Desensitization: In the fourth phase, we unite the targeted memory and the bilateral eye movements, repeating as necessary as we discuss the new thoughts or feelings that emerge in the process. Desensitization lasts until the memory no longer evokes the same heightened emotions.
- Installation: This fifth phase empowers you to associate the targeted memory with a stronger, more preferable, cognitive outcome. For example, while you may have always seen yourself as the victim of a certain event, this phase allows you to focus on how you’ve survived, overcome, and even thrived.
- Body Scan: Once the first five phases are complete, we use the sixth phase to take an inventory of how your body responds when the memory is reintroduced. Scanning, in this context, is simply the work of observation. Any disturbances that pop up or interfere are addressed before moving forward.
- Closure: In this seventh phase, we formally end the current EMDR session. In order to maintain the safe environment we established in the beginning, we put specific containment measures in place until the next session.
- Re-evaluation: This eighth and final phase also serves as the first phase of the next session. It’s the appropriate time to look back on the recent work we’ve done together and to determine continued effectiveness. We’ll discuss any memories that have emerged since the last session and identify new targets to be addressed.
While it’s possible you may have spent years – even decades – avoiding painful feelings, associations, and memories, they haven’t gone anywhere. Burying your trauma isn’t a strategy. It will continue to rear its head in the worst ways and at the least convenient times. Don’t put this work off any longer. We’ve seen remarkable progress made in the Social House community by people just like you – people willing to put in the effort to achieve freedom by facing their past. You deserve it and we’re committed to helping you get there.