EMDR therapy which was developed to work with traumas can be used successfully even if you did not have any specific traumatic event to process. I wanted to share how we conceptualize the problem in EMDR therapy.
Case conceptualization is the first step in any therapy approach. What seems to be a problem? What are we getting into? How we are going to approach that and where this possibly can go? These are the first questions the therapists should ask themselves when they start therapy.
After we establish In EMDR therapy Is an appropriate approach to an issue we define whether we process a specific target (specific traumatic event or series of traumatic events) Target processing includes processing different channels of your traumatic memory. The images you remember of the incident, your emotions, bodily reaction, and your negative thinking or not-so-accurate interpretation of the event – these all are so-called channels that we need to reprocess.
The neural network includes the processing of two neural networks. The negative neural network which has the same triggers associated with events that left you overwhelmed with emotions and sensations. We could see that the future triggers, present triggers, and past events essentially trigger the same emotions and sensations and beliefs which we need to replace with a positive neural network.
This is the goal, we want your positive rational thinking to be present all the time so your reactions and emotions won’t take over when you are triggered. We align these two systems through accessing the same channels (emotions, bodily sensations, negative and positive thinking).
This is how we grow: first, we have an early experience, and we learn something. Then we have another experience and we learn something new, so we put these experiences together. Unfortunately, negative messages are encoded in our neural system more strongly, so when our first experiences are negative, for instance, you were criticized by your parent you might have had a strong negative emotional reaction to the event that left you overwhelmed and confused. But as humans we are very adaptive to the circumstances, so we adapt to those negative experiences – by crying, being angry, shutting down, running away, etc.
If you were repeatedly criticized in the first few years of your life you adapt to that, if you were we are living in the environment when you are ‘not good enough’ you become very good at ‘not being good enough’. Any positive experiences as a result of communication with your parents, teachers, friends or pets or your own realization that you are not that bad when you start to recognize your good qualities help to build a positive system.
This inner conflict shows that these two – positive and negative systems are not attached. I often hear ‘I know that I am a good worker, but when I am criticized by a boss I feel worthless’ After you calm down you start to see things differently, in a better light. But at that very moment when you hear the tone of voice, certain phrases, facial expressions, all the rational and positive thinking is not there anymore.
The strong negative effect can be desensitized through bilateral stimulation to zero. Bilateral stimulation (BLS) can be anything that builds that bridge between negative and positive, safe and unsafe, false and true interpretation so your rational thinking takes over your reactive irrational one. BLS can employ visual stimulation of the right and left part of your brain (you follow my fingers with your eyes), auditory (hearing alternative sounds), tactile (when I tap alternatively your knees or you tap yourself your shoulders). In EMDR through BLS we facilitate the integration of these two networks. The goal of reprocessing is to eventually to replace negative thinking with positive thinking (installation of positive beliefs). We bring present safety and past events so your body doesn’t react anymore. We connect rational thinking and past events so your rational thinking takes over.
After reprocessing clients often say that certain events ‘don’t bother them anymore’ or the’ disturbing images don’t come as easily’ or their ‘memories became distant’.
Often people have strong reactions to certain triggers but don’t understand why. Often when a disturbing event brings overwhelming feelings we need to dissociate from the events, it’s a survival strategy that keeps us alive. Often our brain shuts down painful memories and freezes up the nervous system. We don’t remember anything because it could be too overwhelming for the system. But the traumas can still be stuck in the body. We might not even recognize what triggers our reactions, all that we experience is strong bodily reactions or emotions in a seemingly normal and safe life situation, like watching a movie, getting touched by your partner, hanging out with our friends, being in a class. When we start working on present triggers they can activate the past memories and we can start getting flashbacks.
When our brain freezes those memories, we don’t’ have access to it. By activating disturbing images and negative emotions and sensation we desensitize them. This is why it’s so important to learn how to manage emotions if they come up. There is no need to re-traumatize you. Back then you might not have had the proper resources to manage your feelings, now we can build those resources. Often my clients continue using those strategies after our therapy, it’s good to have a toolbox of the strategies to help you to deal with disturbing events.