NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Saturday, May 25, 2013

Overcoming Trauma With EMDR Therapy: When the Past is in the Present

Many psychotherapy clients ask me why they continue to feel so bad about a trauma that occurred many years ago.  Most people assume that "the past is in the past." But when you have unresolved trauma, the past is definitely in the present and can get triggered by present day circumstances.  I provided an example of this phenomenon in my prior blog article, EMDR - Overcome Trauma That Keeps You Feeling Stuck and in Emotional Pain.

Overcoming Trauma With EMDR Therapy

Let's explore this further to try to understand how traumatic memories from the past can get triggered in your current life.

A Veteran With PTSD Can Get Triggered By a Loud Noise
The example that's often given is of a veteran who comes home from combat with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and gets triggered by a loud noise, like the sound of a car back firing.

The loud noise triggers a trauma response.  Depending upon the severity of the veteran's PTSD, he or she could have a range of responses from a mild startle response to diving for cover as if he or she is still on the battle field.

The Body Reacts Before the Mind in Dangerous Situations
The interesting thing is that when a person reacts to the trauma, his or her body reacts first before the mind reacts.

This is true not only for traumatized veterans who are reacting to memories that get triggered, but also for everyone who is in a potentially dangerous situation whether it's in the past or the present.

Having the body react first before the mind when you're actually in current danger can be very useful.

For instance, if you're in the woods and a bear begins to run after you, your body will react first by pumping adrenaline through out your body and usually your legs will start running before your mind even has time to process the thought, "Oh no!  A bear is running after me!"

If you had to wait for your rational mind to react first before your body reacted by running, you might end up as the bear's lunch.  That's why, under circumstances of present danger, it's better for your body to react first because your body knows what to do--run like the wind!

"Is It a Stick or a Snake?"
Another example of the body reacting before the mind is one I remember hearing from Nancy Napier, LMFT in Somatic Experiencing trauma training.

The example is this:  Imagine yourself hiking in the woods when your eye catches something in your path and your body has an automatic response of jumping back.  Only after your body has reacted will your mind ask the question, "Is this a stick or a snake?"

There might be only a microsecond between your body reacting and your mind asking the question, but it's definitely more efficient and safer for the body to react first, especially if it really is a poisonous snake.  Then again, if you realize that it's really just a stick, you're relieved and you can keep walking.

Your Body and Mind Still React, Even When It's a Memory of the Traumatic Event and Not Actual Current Danger
When what you're feeling is the memory of a traumatic event, as opposed to being in actual danger in the present moment, your body will still react when it's triggered by a current event.

Depending upon the severity of your reaction, you could react with a fight, flight, or freeze reaction.  There would be a build up of adrenaline.  You might find yourself shaking and your heart pounding, but since you're not in actual danger at the moment, you won't be discharging this mobilized energy by running--the pent up energy will stay in the body.

If you're constantly being triggered in the present by traumatic memories, you can see how this isn't useful the way it is when you're confronted by a bear or the possibility of poisonous snake in the present moment and you would use that energy to flee.

When you react as if there is present danger when there's none and this happens over and over again, it can be exhausting on a physical and emotional level.  It can compromise your immune system and cause health problems.

There Are Many Different Types of Events That Can Cause PTSD
The example I gave above of the combat veteran, who gets triggered by a loud noise, is the classic example of PTSD.

But there are many different situations, aside from combat trauma, that can cause PTSD, including emotional abuse, physical or sexual abuse, car accidents, getting robbed or mugged, natural disaster, terrorism, and any other emotionally overwhelming event.

What is An Emotionally Overwhelming Event?
What is an emotionally overwhelming event?  It depends on the individual.

Two people can go through the same event and one person might develop a traumatic response and the other might not, depending upon many factors, including personal history, personality, and other factors.

An Overwhelming Event From Your Past Doesn't Have to Cause Full Blown PTSD to Get Triggered in the Present
What many people don't realize is that the overwhelming event doesn't have to cause PTSD in order to get triggered later on.  You don't have to meet the full diagnostic criteria for PTSD to have a traumatic response and get emotionally triggered.

There is what is known in trauma work as "Big T" and "Smaller T" trauma, which I explained in a prior blog article: EMDR and "Big T" and "Smaller T" Trauma.

When You Get Emotionally Triggered By a Memory, It Can Feel Like You're "Going Crazy"
Sometimes, the person who is feeling emotionally triggered might not even realize that they're being triggered by a memory of a traumatic event.  This can make the person feel like they're "going crazy."

So, when I work with clients who are confused by their emotional reactions, I educate them about how past memories can trigger emotional reactions in the present.

It's usually reassuring to clients to know that they're have a common reaction to the memory of an overwhelming event.

Getting Help
EMDR is a safe and effective form of trauma therapy when it is used by a skilled therapist.  

Rather than continuing to be triggered by past memories, you owe it to yourself to get help from an experienced EMDR therapist to resolve your trauma.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with individual adults and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website:  Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 or email me.