Meghann Crane-Russ, LCSW, PMH-C is a therapist in private practice in California who works with individuals struggling with traumatic grief, medical trauma, parents navigating childhood illness, and bereaved parents. Prior to private practice Meghann was a medical social worker caring for families in hospice, Pediatric Intensive Care Units and Neonatal Intensive Care Units. To learn more about Meghann and her practice place visit www.mcrlcsw.com
Life is unpredictable. Sometimes unexpected, wonderful things happen, and sometimes unexpected terrible things happen. Part of the way humans cope with the uncertainty of life is by choosing how to respond and create meaning after a terrible thing happens. Sometimes despite the adversity of navigating the terrible thing, the experience leads to healing and personal growth. The meaning created and response mounted by a person is adaptive. Other times, for a myriad of reasons, no matter what a person wants or how hard they try, the response is maladaptive and the meaning that is created hinders recovery, growth, or healing.
One of the most significant developments in modern mental health care is our understanding of the impact that traumatic experiences (the terrible things) have on humans and how those experiences impact the brain and body. Emotional trauma can develop in a person as a response to the experience of a real or perceived life-altering or life threatening event. A person can develop trauma following a single event or a series of events that are emotionally disturbing. Untreated trauma can cause lasting negative effects on a person’s mental and physical health, as well as social and emotional functioning.
Experiencing trauma can alter the oldest and most primitive parts of the brain and change how one experiences safety. The amygdala is the part of the brain that sends the initial signal if one encounters danger. The hippocampus is the part of the brain that stores information about what is or what is not safe. In people who have trauma, both the amygdala and the hippocampus become overreactive, sounding the alarm when there is not threat and then cataloging and remembering those experiences as threats, even though they are not threats. This over-reactivity can cause a person to escalate into a fight, flight, or freeze response when there is no actual threat present, and it happens over and over again. An analogy I often use with clients who have emotional trauma is that the smoke detector in their brain is broken. Their brain smoke detector sets off a 3-alarm fire not just for smoke and fire, but also for steam or a slight breeze.
Memories created during traumatic experiences are stored in the brain and experienced differently than normal memories. Traumatic memories are emotionally charged, can generate changes in our autonomic nervous system (heart rate, breathing, and release of stress hormones), and are experienced through our senses (we see/hear/feel them intensely). Triggers in the environment can also cause these memories to be intrusive, presenting as flashbacks or nightmares. Traumatic memories are not tied to time the same way that normal memories are. When remembered a person can feel as though they are re-experiencing the traumatic event, not just remembering it happened.
Coupled with an increased understanding of emotional trauma and how it impacts the brain, effective and evidenced based trauma focused treatment modalities have developed. One of the first and most effective trauma-focused treatment modalities is Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy (EMDR). EMDR was developed by Francine Shapiro, Ph.D in the late 1980’s. The first controlled study showing the effectiveness of EMDR was published by Dr. Shapiro in 1989. That initial study has been followed by years of empirical data documenting effectiveness of EMDR therapy in treating not only PTSD, but also anxiety disorders, depression, chronic pain, and addiction (1).
EMDR is a structured therapy that targets traumatic memories and facilitates reprocessing of those memories to resolve the traumatic elements tied to those experiences. EMDR therapy is facilitated with use of bilateral stimulation, which is simply side to side stimulation, in the form of back-and-forth eye movements, alternating audio tones, or tactile stimulation. Bilateral stimulation is the mechanism used to keep one’s brain from initiating a stress response while the traumatic memory is recalled.
During EMDR reprocessing, bilateral stimulation is administered by the clinician while the client recalls the traumatic memory. The experience of having dual attention of the traumatic memory and the bilateral stimulation allows the brain to recall the traumatic experience without becoming overwhelmed and initiating a fight, flight, or freeze response. This process allows the more evolved parts of the brain to process the traumatic experience which can lead to a more adaptive understanding of the experience, and it allows the client to see the traumatic experience from a different perspective. During EMDR the brain can heal the emotionally-traumatic experiences and the memories are stored more normally. After EMDR reprocessing the information about the traumatic experience is the same, but the understanding and the meaning made from the experience is different. EMDR therapy helps people attain the adaptive response that leads to recovery, growth, and healing following the terrible thing that has happened to them.
EMDR therapy is administered by licensed mental health providers who have been trained in the modality. If you would like more information about EMDR Therapy or find a licensed mental health provider trained in EMDR please visit https://www.emdria.org/.
(1) “About EMDR Therapy.” EMDR International Association, 27 July 2022, https://www.emdria.org/about-emdr-therapy/.