Abuse, trauma and EMDR: Rescue your scared inner child
Trauma. There is a lot in this explanation of it in this article. I’m going to explore what trauma means, why this happens, and how EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing) can help.
A key factor in therapy for trauma is psychoeducation (helping someone understand what is happening to them) so it’s important for therapists to develop ways of explaining trauma – what it is and why it happens; to find explanations that make sense to the people we work with, people who live with trauma, and that will be helpful to them.
“It’s as if in one part of your mind you know you are living in the present and are safe, but there’s another part of your mind which feels as if the trauma / dangerous or abusive situation, is still going on. The part of you that knows you're safe can’t reach the part of you which still feels in danger, to tell it that you are safe.”
The reason someone can simultaneously hold a feeling of safety and a feeling of danger in their mind is because of the two main areas of the brain involved in the processing of traumatic experience and memory – the Hippocampus and the Amygdala.
The Hippocampus is like the library of the brain – experiences are stored there as memories and because the Hippocampus can understand time and place, if memory is held there, your brain knows that, however awful the experience was, it is now over and in the past. That area of the brain also holds contextual information, allowing the brain to take account of factors in the present which make your current situation safe.
The Amygdala is the brain’s threat centre. In any dangerous situation, information about the threat is sent to the Amygdala which assesses it, decides how dangerous the situation is, and selects one of four defensive moves to ensure safety: fight, flight, freeze or submit, pumping stress hormones into the body to get it ready for action, or to protect itself. Sometimes, so much information comes into the Amygdala that not all of it can be processed by the brain’s memory processing mechanism, so it gets stuck there, instead of being moved to the Hippocampus and stored as memory.
This causes a problem as the Amygdala doesn’t understand time or place. So if something happens later to remind it of the original trauma, it thinks it’s happening again and pumps out the same hormones. If you have ever felt that a frightening episode was happening to you again, it may be because of this.
So part of the memory is held in the hippocampus, which knows it’s just a memory (albeit a horrible one), while the rest is in the Amygdala, which thinks it’s still happening. Put another way, the knowledge you are safe is held in the logical, thinking, verbal left brain, and the feeling you are still in danger is held in the emotional, creative, non-verbal, right brain.
Because of the barrier which exists between the brain’s two hemispheres, these two pieces of knowledge and experience are not in contact with each other. And because the feeling you are in danger is in the non-verbal side of the brain, trying to talk to it, to tell that part of you that you are safe, won’t get you very far.
How do we tell ourselves we are not in danger?
1. Through the body
The Amygdala may be cut off from the thinking, verbal area of the brain, but it is connected to the body: it receives threat signals from sensors in the muscles, skin, eyes, ears, and gut when the body detects a danger, but also calming signals when the body feels safe – deep, slow diaphragmatic breathing, stretching and relaxation send safety signals up through the Vagal Nerve, to the Amygdala, which turns off your defense responses. This is one reason Yoga is so helpful for recovery from trauma.
Another way is to use EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing) therapy. EMDR is not a talking therapy. It works at the level of the nervous system by using Bilateral Stimulation (BLS) rather than asking you to talk in detail about a traumatic incident. An EMDR therapist will ask you to play what you remember in your mind as a film and to pause it at the worst moment, bringing it together in your mind with the negative thoughts you have about yourself when you put yourself there, the emotions you feel and what you feel in your body (tension, stiffness, pain, discomfort in the stomach).
The therapist then asks you to follow their fingers with your eyes as they move their hand from left to right in front of your face. This stimulates the brain’s memory processing mechanism (previously overwhelmed by the volume of information at the time of the trauma) so that the experience can be moved from the Amygdala to the Hippocampus.
This can be a great relief as once it reaches the “library”, your brain knows it’s over - it’s in the past and can no longer harm you. As this happens, you might notice that the original image is fading, more positive ideas are replacing the negative thoughts, the distress you feel reduces and your body relaxes.
Eye movements are one way of doing this, but other forms of left/right movement can be equally effective, such as tapping your fingers on your collar bones, in time with the therapist, following lights moving across a bar, or listening to left/right clicks through earphones.
Another effect of BLS is that the left brain / right brain barrier dissolves in response to the constant left/right movement (this engages both hemispheres at the same time around the same memory, increasing communication between them.) The knowledge you are safe in the here and now, spreads out from the neuronal circuits where it has been held into the circuits where the feeling you are still in danger is held.
Sometimes an EMDR therapist might ask you to imagine you can go back in time to that moment, but as you are now and, if you could, what you might say and do to make your younger self feel safe? What does your younger self need right now to feel safe? People say “I’ll give her a hug, tell him this isn’t his fault, I’ll take her out of that place, bring her back to live with me now…”. Combining this with BLS can be a powerful intervention and sometimes it just happens spontaneously, without the therapist’s intervention.
Never forget that everyone has an 'inner child' living within them as we all hold the memory within us of being twenty, ten, or five. Perhaps unconscious, or non-verbal, but memory held nonetheless, and for many people, being this young was a frightening place to be. It is never too late though to go back in time and help that child be safe.
If you would like to help your inner child and begin the process of healing from past trauma, contact me via my profile below.