Let’s talk about trauma for a moment. I’ve mentioned EMDR in other posts, but let’s really discuss it for clarity’s sake.
What is EMDR?
“Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) is a therapeutic approach that emphasizes the brain’s intrinsic information processing system and how memories are stored. Current symptoms are viewed as resulting from disturbing experiences that have not been adequately processed and have been encoded in state-specific, dysfunctional form (Shapiro, 1995, 2001, 2007a). The heart of EMDR involves the transmutation of these dysfunctionally stored experiences into an adaptive resolution that promotes psychological health. For EMDR to be applied effectively, the clinician needs a framework that identifies appropriate target memories and order of processing to obtain optimal treatment effects.” (EMDR and the Adaptive Information Processing Model)
Does that sound like a mouthful? Let’s simplify it. Imagine, if you will, that your brain has two buckets for storing memories of experiences. We will label one bucket “adaptively processed” and the other bucket “maladaptively processed”.
In your adaptively processed bucket, all of your life experiences that you have “processed” as understood are dropped–even the bad ones. You have understood them and given them meaning. They might have been traumatic at one point, but they no longer resonate with that painful quality. You can recall them without feeling triggered. You can now look back and say, “Ah yes, I understand that now. I can derive something from that. I can put meaning to that suffering.” Or perhaps there is no meaning to add to the experience, but you can find a place for the experience. It has been adequately processed, and it doesn’t hurt acutely any longer. It is a memory at rest, untethered from other memories.
The Maladaptively Processed Bucket
All of your maladaptively processed memories are dropped into the maladaptively processed bucket. These are memories of traumatic experiences that your brain cannot understand or give meaning to. They tend to have a “snapshot” quality about them and emerge quickly when a new experience occurs with similar emotional echoes. Here is a helpful explanation about how we learn and store memories:
“Consistent with other learning theories, the AIP model posits the existence of an information processing system that assimilates new experiences into already existing memory networks. These memory networks are the basis of perception, attitudes, and behavior. Perceptions of current situations are automatically linked with associated memory networks (Buchanon , 2007). For example, the reader can make sense of this sentence because of previous experiences with written English. Similarly, burning one’s hand on a stove goes into memory networks having to do with stoves and the potential danger of hot objects. A conflict with a playmate (“me first”) and its resolution (“we can share”) is accommodated and assimilated into memory networks having to do with relationships and adds to the available knowledge base regarding interpersonal relations and conflict resolution. When working appropriately, the innate information processing system “metabolizes” or “digests” new experiences. Incoming sensory perceptions are integrated and connected to related information that is already stored in memory networks, allowing us to make sense of our experience. What is useful is learned, stored in memory networks with appropriate emotions, and made available to guide the person in the future (Shapiro, 2001).” (EMDR and the Adaptive Information Processing Model)
This explains why traumatic experiences are hard to get over particularly repeated exposure to trauma. One traumatic experience in a lifetime of relatively positive experiences is unwanted and damaging, but repetitive traumas create what I call a Trauma Train. Every new trauma is like a car being added to a locomotive which is the original trauma. Soon, small events, which may not in and of themselves be horrible, feel catastrophic because they echo the original trauma which may have been devastating.
What does this look like in real time?
I’ll use the example of molestation during childhood. 1 in 4 women experience sexual abuse during her lifetime and 1 in 6 men experience it. This is common. I’ll tell this in a narrative form:
Jane was sexually abused by her stepfather. It started when she was 9 years-old. He fondled her on and off for a few years, and he made her watch him masturbate. She doesn’t have many visual memories, but she remembers how she felt. She remembers her acid stomach when he touched her in her bathing suit area, and she remembers how his hands felt touching her body. Her stepfather would always put his hand around her neck. Consequently, Jane hates to wear turtlenecks and scarves, and she feels very nervous and even gets migraines when she gets indigestion. She doesn’t really know why. Jane has never enjoyed dating. She hates the particularistic feeling of butterflies in her stomach. That feeling makes Jane want to run away and hide. She doesn’t like men to touch her, and she doesn’t like to make out or be intimate in any way. The feeling of their breath on her neck makes her want to vomit. The thought of having sex is too much for her. She once saw a penis, and she did throw up. Jane feels defective, alienated, and terribly lonely. She doesn’t want to feel alone. She doesn’t know why she struggles so much when her friends enjoy dating and going out. She just stays home and dreams that one day she’ll feel more confident.
What can be said about a scenario like this?
“Problems arise when an experience is inadequately processed. Shapiro’s AIP model (1995, 2001, 2006) posits that a particularly distressing incident may become stored in state-specific form, meaning frozen in time in its own neural network, unable to connect with other memory networks that hold adaptive information. She hypothesizes that when a memory is encoded in excitatory, distressing, state-specific form, the original perceptions can continue to be triggered by a variety of internal and external stimuli, resulting in inappropriate emotional, cognitive, and behavioral reactions, as well as overt symptoms (e.g., high anxiety, nightmares, intrusive thoughts). Dysfunctionally stored memories are understood to lay the foundation for future maladaptive responses, because perceptions of current situations are automatically linked with associated memory networks. Childhood events also may be encoded with survival mechanisms and include feelings of danger that are inappropriate for adults. However, these past events retain their power because they have not been appropriately assimilated over time into adaptive networks. The AIP model views negative behaviors and personality characteristics as the result of dysfunctionally held information (Shapiro, 2001). From this perspective, a negative self-belief (e.g., “I am not good enough”) is not seen as the cause of present dysfunction; it is understood to be a symptom of the unprocessed earlier life experiences that contain that affect and perspective. Attitudes, emotions, and sensations are not considered simple reactions to a past event; they are seen as manifestations of the physiologically stored perceptions stored in memory and the reactions to them. This view of present symptoms as the result of the activation of memories that have been inadequately processed and stored is integral to EMDR treatment. ” (EMDR and the Adaptive Information Processing Model)
The purpose of EMDR then is to transmute these inadequately processed memories to adaptively processed and integrated memories:
“After successful treatment, it is posited that the memory is no longer isolated, because it appears to be appropriately integrated within the larger memory network. Hence, processing is understood to involve the forging of new associations and connections enabling learning to take place with the memory then stored in a new adaptive form.” (EMDR and the Adaptive Information Processing Model)
EMDR works. It moves those maladaptively processed memories to the adaptively processed bucket. I have done EMDR in the past, and I am about to embark on the process again. I highly recommend EMDR to anyone who wishes to move from living in a triggered, traumatized state to a more integrated state. My therapist recently told me that EMDR can address the lesser discussed PTSD symptom of the sense of a foreshortened future, and that blew my socks off! If EMDR can actually address and heal that, I might do something crazy like…er..post a picture of myself wearing an ugly Christmas sweater on my blog.
I’ll keep you posted. In the meantime, keep EMDR in mind if you are looking to heal from trauma. It’s a well-groomed trail out of the mire.