As an Atlanta EMDR counselor I frequently work with people in trauma counseling. When I introduce clients to EMDR therapy (Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing) I usually try to educate them about trauma and core beliefs. I explain that our experiences in life teach us things. The problem becomes when our brains hang on to the negative memories, don’t store them properly, and then apply unhealthy or damaging beliefs to the memories.
I usually like to help people broaden their definition of trauma when discussing EMDR counseling. I like to clarify that you can experience emotional, physical, spiritual, and relational trauma. This helps people realize that trauma isn’t just something that happens when people experience life-threatening events, although those can certainly cause trauma. Trauma isn’t the experience itself. Rather, trauma is the person’s perception of what happened. It’s how the brain processes the experience. And, even when we think about an experience logically and rationally, our brains can still struggle with processing the experience and can still be traumatized.
There are big and small traumas in life, but all of them can impact our brains in ways that we aren’t necessarily aware. If you have been through a scary, life threatening, or devastating event, and experience unwanted symptoms related to the event then you may be experiencing some backlash from the trauma. Or, if you have heard negative things about yourself or the world and carried them with you into your current relationships and those negative beliefs are damaging your relationships, you might also have experienced a type of trauma.
Most people think of trauma in terms of war or abuse, but there are so many more things in life that can cause trauma. Therapists sometimes section trauma out to further explain it. In EMDR therapy, we teach that there are big traumas and little traumas. There are single incident traumas, and there are long exposures to trauma. There is simple trauma and complex trauma.
No matter what level, what type, or what severity of trauma you’ve experienced your brain can still struggle with making sense of it. It’s not necessarily a thinking thing, or an emotions thing. When we experience trauma our brains go to work to store what we’ve experienced. Sometimes, they struggle with this and can’t store the memories effectively. This is what causes us to experience the unwanted responses to what we’ve been through.
Unwanted responses to trauma can include headaches, stomach issues, exaggerated startle responses, nightmares, anger, depression, anxiety, phobias, fears, flashbacks, repeat dreams, tension in the body, unexplained body sensations, bad feelings about things, paranoia, unexplained negative responses to safe people, and negative thoughts about self.
Some experiences that may cause trauma:
- Scary events like war, attacks shootings, accidents, car crashes, personal injury, injury of others, threat of injury or death of self or others
- Medical scares or medical issues
- Personal sickness or sickness of others
- As a child experiencing parenting styles that are harsh, distant, disconnected, neglectful, codependent, or abusive
- Being bullied
- Threat of loss or actual loss (of job, safety, love ones, valued possessions, money, etc.)
- Being left or feeling left and in danger
- Lack of safety regarding expressing or experiencing feelings (It’s not okay to feel)
- Divorce or the divorce of parents
- Natural disasters (hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquake, etc.)
Here’s the interesting thing about trauma. Sometimes, we don’t even realize it’s there. We experienced something and moved past it, but it sits in our brain and gets bumped up against on occasion. Sometimes we’re aware of the traumatic memory, and other times we aren’t but either way we still have the trauma response present. So maybe we just feel bad or anxious, or we lash out on someone, or we cry unexpectedly, or we do something that is out of the norm.
It’s even more interesting that sometimes our brain stores a trauma effectively and sometimes it doesn’t. So, an example might be that I was in a car accident at 12 years old and have no unwanted symptoms related to it. But let’s say that when I was 20 I was in a fender bender that caused me to have anxiety when I get in cars. For whatever reason my brain was unable to store the incident at 20 effectively.
What I love about EMDR therapy is that it works to assist the brain with processing the trauma and storing it appropriately. The therapy uses eye movement, similar to the movement we use during REM sleep, to process our trauma and then store it effectively. The theory is our brains do this when our eyes move during REM sleep which may be why we don’t have PTSD from dreams/nightmares.
If you experience symptoms related to trauma, then be encouraged. There are therapies that can help you. Talk to someone. Of course, I will encourage you to talk to a trained professional that knows about trauma and knows how to best support you. Don’t just hold it in. Stuffing your feelings can lead to having more issues. Sometimes people call us EMDR therapists, or EMDR counselors. Whatever you end up calling it, I encourage you to seek help.