January 8, 2018

Clean Out Your Trauma Closet-Do a Life Review with EMDR Therapy

Each year brings opportunities for new beginnings. When a new year begins many people see it as a way of starting fresh or starting over, a time of renewal, making resolutions or setting goals, or picking a word that symbolizes their intention for how they want to live in the coming year. A new year can also offer  an opportunity to clean out your trauma closet. As each year goes by we accumulate life’s trauma. Trauma is not just the result of a major disaster – it can also be an accumulation of the little things in life that affect us as well. Trauma does not happen to “only some of us”. There is no way to be alive without experiencing old age, illnesses, separation and loss. No one is immune. EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) therapy helps us to heal from distressing life events and makes us more resilient to future distress. In the book, The Trauma of Everyday Life- Mark Epstein, MD says, “Trauma does not just happen to a few unlucky people; it is the bedrock of our psychology. Death and illness touch us all, but even the everyday sufferings of loneliness and fear are traumatic.”

Daily life is filled with endless little traumas including disappointments, hurts, betrayals, sadness, guilt and shame. These can be experienced by loved ones and pets dying, job loss, separation, divorce, illness, family members with addiction, chronic pain, estranged family members and haunting memories. Our world is unstable and unpredictable; if we don’t have PTSD then we probably have pre-TSD. We worry about everything…and we are supposed to. That is the way our brains work. As a saying goes, “we are designed to hold onto the negatives like Velcro and push away the positive like Teflon.” It can be helpful for people to clean out their trauma closet by reviewing their life in time frames and processing disturbing life events that bother or negatively affect them today.

In doing a life review we start with the beginning which is pre-conception. Then we review conception,  birth, the first month of life, three months, 6 months, 1 year, 2 years and 3 years. Because we don’t have implicit memories or narratives until after the age of three, clients are asked to get a “felt sense” of each time frame.  They are asked to scan their body and notice any distress. They are also asked to imagine what it would have been like for them during that time based on what they know now about their history, their parents and stories that they have heard of their childhood. The felt sense of these time frames and implicit memories can be processed with EMDR therapy to release the trauma held in the mind and body. More and more research is coming out about the importance of this early time period on a person’s life and the effects of how those Big T or little t traumas will affect a person for the rest of their life. The effects of these early traumas or attachment traumas are played out later in life – such as difficulties people have in their relationships with their partners, chronic feelings of depression and anxiety, autoimmune disorders and illnesses and difficulties rebounding from stress.

In continuing the life review clients are asked to scan a variety of ages – 4 years, 5 years 7 years, 10 years, 15 years, 18 years, 21 years, 25 years, 30 years, 35 years, 40 years, 50 years and so on. Scanning for distress by time periods, developmental ages and milestones in a person’s life are reviewed. In this process the EMDR therapist is looking for touchstone trauma memories – the first of it or the worst of it. Also, in this process clients are asked to identify memories of disturbance by rating the distress on a scale of 0-10 where 0 is no disturbance and 10 is the most disturbances. In doing this the client and therapist can identify the memories that are the most life impacting. By processing trauma from the memories that are the most life impacting, EMDR ensures an associated effect. This means that we do not need to process every “bad thing” that happened to us but only the things that stand out the most and affect us today when we think about them. By processing distressing time periods and milestones in people lives they are able to release and repair the missed opportunities for growth. The Early Trauma Protocol and the standard protocol for EMDR therapy is used in this process. Many times people will say, “I feel more like an adult than I used too, I feel less scared, I am able to advocate for myself and my needs and I am able to help calm and reassure myself in ways that I haven’t been able to do before. Ironically, when people are able to process the trauma by time frames they are able to meet the milestones of development that they weren’t able to meet in the past because the trauma response was keeping them stuck.

Trauma needs to be talked about and processed. When it is held too tightly, pushed away, kept a secret, it tends to eat away at us, causing us shame, grief and unhappiness. Trauma has nowhere to go. If it doesn’t get metabolized or stored in our brains in a way that is helpful to us then it builds up and accumulates over time, leaking out and affecting us with depression, anxiety, sleepless nights, troubles  in relationships and making us physically ill. It continues to build until there is a tipping point. Processing trauma before the tipping point allows us to be more resilient, better able to enjoy our current life and less likely to experience PTSD with a future traumatic event. Willingness to face our traumas large or small is the key to healing from them. We cannot erase them but we can process the negative effects left on our nervous system, in our minds and heart. We can take what we need to learn from those experiences and leave what we don’t need behind. Trauma plays an important role in our life journey and can be our greatest teacher. If it doesn’t destroy us it can wake us up! It can open the door to growth and healing and allow us to be more human, caring and wise.