Emotional trauma and its components

Trauma is an emotional response to an event. Traumatic events include physical, psychological and sexual abuse, terrorism and war, accidents, witnessing a life-threatening event or violence against others or yourself, natural disasters and domestic violence. Even having a childhood with no support or warmth can create a trauma in some people.

Short-term reactions include flashbacks, shock and denial, and long-term reactions may include flashbacks, mood swings and symptoms like nightmares, insomnia, somatic disturbances, difficulty with intimate relationships, loss of trust, depression, substance abuse problems, or even suicidal behaviours. Survivors often wait years to receive help while others never receive treatment at all.

Sometimes the way people interiorize these traumas is by creating dysfunctional beliefs about one's self. These beliefs may include: “I am worthless, I am not important, I am disgusting, I am unlovable, …” amongst other beliefs.

Possible treatments for emotional trauma

There are a wide range of effective treatment interventions that can help to diminish the severity of these symptoms.

  • Cognitive Behavioural Therapy,
  • Dialectical Behavioural Therapy and
  • Acceptance and commitment Therapy

are evidence-based techniques that alleviate some of the trauma´s symptoms, such as the mood swings, the dysfunctional thoughts and even the suicidal behaviours, the insomnia and the difficulties with intimate relationships. But there are some cases where some of these symptoms are unlikely to disappear with the treatment interventions described above. When this happens, it is important to add different approaches in our treatment plan.

EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) can be a good option for these cases.

EMDR, stress and the processing of traumatic events in our brain.

In some cases when someone goes through a traumatic experience, their brain tends to isolate the synaptic connections between neurons related to that specific event. This is a “survival” mechanism that our brain uses so we can continue with our normal lives after the event. Say, for example, that we witness an accident. Stress begins with something called the hypothalamus pituitary adrenal axis, a series of interactions between endocrine glands which controls our body’s reaction to stress. When our brain detects a stressful situation, our HPA axis is instantly activated and we then secrete a hormone called cortisol, which primes our body for instant action.

Sometimes stress can even increase the activity level and number of neural connections in the amygdala, our brain’s fear centre. And as levels of cortisol rise, electric signals in our hippocampus, the part of the brain associated with learning, memories, and stress control, deteriorate.

The information is stored in the central nervous system, together with the negative core beliefs and the emotional and physical sensations that the person experienced when the traumatic event took place. All this information remains stored as if the trauma was still happening right now. These patterns of thoughts are stimulated, activated or originated by current stimuli that lead the person to react in a similar way as how they reacted in the past.

EMDR enables the person to process all the traumatic memories so they can develop adaptative behaviours. Once all these memories have been processed, there is also a physiological change.

The EMDR allows the person to generalise the positive cognitions by processing the Traumatic memories. These memories are distributed throughout the neural networks and the processing thus enables the person to perform adaptative behaviours in the present.

Once the memories have been processed, a physiological change takes place so that the traumatic memory softens together with the corresponding associated beliefs, feelings and physical sensations. We would have then reduced the blockage (the dysfunctional stored information) and reprocessed, reduced or eliminated the negative beliefs associated with the trauma.

Some human reactions are learnt behaviours. They might be very convenient and serve us for a certain period of time. For example, a woman that suffered repeated sexual assaults from a family member during her childhood, may have developed a dissociative disorder. That was her way to deal with fear and trauma at the time.

Dissociation ranges from a mild emotional detachment from the person’s surroundings to a disconnection from physical and emotional experiences.

It is a coping mechanism in seeking to tolerate stress and involves a detachment from reality and is very common among people who have suffered from trauma. As an adult, that same person might now find herself also dissociating from stressful work-related situations. When she was a child, dissociation was the only way she found to deal with the stressors and it was an adaptative behaviour. As an adult, the dissociation may be hindering other areas in her day-to day life, such as work, family or school.

Another example can be a person that has a completely adaptative life but that feels extreme and intense negative emotions that seem to come “out of the blue”. These emotions are usually triggered by stimuli that remind the person of the trauma, and that the person might not even be conscious of.

EMDR works with eye movements, focusing on memories, thoughts, emotions or physical sensations related to memories about the past, the present or situations that may happen in the future.

Do you think you can benefit from EMDR? Get in touch with us!

Marta Gray Nuñez
Division of Psychology, Psychotherapy and Coaching
Marta Gray Nuñez
Clinical and General Health Psychologist
Adults and couples
Languages: English and Spanish
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