by Brynn Luger, LPCC, NCC
In counseling, it is believed that one person’s trauma is merely another person’s irritating event. This means that everyone defines what he or she considers traumatic differently. For example, what is an emotionally crippling event to one person may be nothing more than an annoying occurrence to another. Simply put, trauma is subjective. This can make it difficult for us to understand our own past trauma.
Trauma refers to an event that falls outside the range of usual human experience that causes emotional distress. It may be classified in two ways: “big T” and “little t” traumas. “Big T” trauma refers to the more recognizable traumatic incidents, such as physical or sexual violence, war, natural disasters, or car accidents. Often these experiences lead to symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). However, a “little t” trauma is something that is experienced on a personal level which causes high levels of emotional stress, such as divorce, unexpected loss of a loved one, having or adopting a child, or losing one’s job. It is reasonable to say that most people have experienced something frightening, traumatic, or upsetting in their past.
Coping With Trauma
Mental health counseling may help alleviate symptoms of PTSD, such as low or sad mood, anxiety, irritability, and hypervigilance. Skills gained in counseling can also help individuals learn to manage and cope with the disturbing memories of the events. The type and duration of therapy differs depending on the clinician and the client’s preference.
Since the early 1980s, a specific psychotherapy technique has emerged that aims to relieve the associated emotional symptoms of trauma, called eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR).
What is EMDR?
EMDR uses a combination of bilateral stimulation, which is visual, auditory, or tactile stimulation that occurs in a rhythmic left-right pattern, and talk therapy. In addition to trauma, EMDR is used to treat a variety of mental and emotional issues including depression and anxiety. Research shows that EMDR is an effective tool that reduces the effects of PTSD. The American Psychiatric Association, the World Health Organization, and the Department of Defense consider it an effective form of treatment for trauma.
Through changes in the brain’s memory networking, EMDR allows people to recover from the distress and symptoms that are the result of disturbing life experiences—big T and litte t traumas, for example. The human brain has the power to heal itself after a psychological trauma. However, there are times when we experience a distressing event and it gets blocked in our memory network. EMDR helps clear out the block, and healing can then continue. EMDR’s relationship to trauma is often compared to how a scrape or cut heals on skin. These typically heal quickly, unless a foreign body is stuck in the wound. Once the wound has been cleaned and the body removed, the healing process continues.
EMDR is a multi-phase therapy process that includes information gathering, target memory identification, bilateral stimulation (via eye movements or tapping), and closure. The end result that many clients report is feeling empowered by what they have experienced in EMDR therapy.
Participating in EMDR treatment will not result in someone forgetting their past; rather, EMDR helps these past wounds close and heal properly—therefore the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors related to this event have changed, having reached an emotional resolution. This is all done without the individual going into great detail or reliving the event.
EMDR is a relatively fast and effective way to treat many mental health issues. If you’re interested in learning more about EMDR or finding an EMDR therapist near you, check out emdria.org and search by location or provider.
Brynn Luger is a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor and National Certified Counselor at the UND Center for Family Medicine. While specializing in adolescent, adult, and couples therapy, her areas of interest include Native American mental health issues, EMDR therapy, and addiction.