Thoughts on Trauma from an EMDR Therapist's Perspective
Updated: Aug 31, 2022
As a trauma therapist, I work with trauma on a daily basis. I notice how often clients, friends, and family undermine their own traumas. Some convince themselves that they haven't ever experienced any trauma in their lifetime. Those that do acknowledge their trauma tend to discount it and put on a brave face. I hear a lot of: "other people had/have it worse" or "it was an accident" or "it's really no big deal."
I haven't met a single human being who hasn't experienced trauma.
What do you think of when you hear the word "trauma?" Witnessing a murder? Physical abuse? Getting stuck in a house that's caught on fire?
While those are definitely traumatic moments that nobody deserves to endure, trauma is also:
The birthday party you didn't get invited to in 2nd grade. ("I'm not good enough")
The heartbreak you felt when your high school partner broke up with you. ("I'm insignificant")
Getting fired unexpectedly from your job. ("I'm incompetent")
Getting into a car accident. ("I'm not safe")
Messing up a friendship. ("I'm a bad person")
Cheating on a partner. ("I can't be trusted")
Witnessing a horrific event. ("I'm damaged")
Losing a loved one. ("I'm alone")
There is no such thing as competition when it comes to trauma. One person's trauma may not have the same negative belief or level of disturbance linked to it as another person's. Although some people have endured some horrific moments, they may not struggle as much with that trauma as someone who endured an arguably less horrific moment. I hope we can all stop comparing traumatic moments to others. The saying "others have it worse" is unfair. Your trauma is just as valid as anyone else's.
Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR) is an approach to trauma work that explores a pattern of events that led to a negative belief about oneself. This work involves somatic work as well as verbal processing. An example of this pattern:
Toddler: your siblings won't play with you "I'm not good enough"
2nd grade: not invited to a birthday party "I'm not good enough"
5th grade: getting an F on your exam and your parents ground you for it "I'm not good enough"
10th grade: the person you have a crush on tells you they like your friend "I'm not good enough"
Early 20s: the job you apply to hires someone else "I'm not good enough"
Mid 20s: you burn all of the food for the dinner party you're hosting "I'm not good enough"
By your 30s, the belief "I'm not good enough" has sunken in so deeply that it's showing up as anxiety, depression, and stress. You finally seek therapy because you are struggling to find passion in your life, lack self-esteem, and can't seem to find the confidence to go after your goals. Your therapist suggests trauma work and you begin to process through and recognize these patterns to then replace them with positive beliefs.
These moments may seem small if we look at them one by one. Trauma stores this negative belief time after time in small fragments. Each time it's lit up again, the negative belief seeps further and further and begins to show up in somatic and emotional ways (anxiety, depression, tension, panic attacks, difficulty breathing, physically shaking, stomach aches, irritability, fear, overwhelm, lack of confidence/self-esteem).
Here is an example of what processing through a negative belief with a trained trauma therapist could look like:
Toddler: your siblings won't play with you and you feel invisible "My needs matter"
2nd grade: not invited to a birthday party "I can make true connections"
5th grade: getting an F on your exam and your parents ground you for it "I did the best I could at the time"
10th grade: the person you have a crush on tells you they like your friend "I'm lovable"
Early 20s: the job you apply to hires someone else "I deserve success"
Mid 20s: you burn all of the food for the dinner party you're hosting "I learned from it"
Or, all of the past moments could be wrapped into one statement that fulfills the present day (30s) positive belief: "I am worthy"
Through EMDR, the new belief "I am worthy" is installed. The next time a moment that would normally trigger the "I'm not good enough" belief arises, the new belief "I am worthy" will show up instead. The body will be more relaxed and attuned. The client will feel more in control and connected to their body and mind. The client will also be better at recognizing their somatic symptoms that signal they are starting to feel like they aren't good enough. The client will also know how to regulate themselves and ease the body's tension in order to create space to sit with the belief of worthiness instead.
I wish for greater compassion toward ourselves and others when it comes to recognizing difficult memories and internalized negative beliefs. I hope we all continue to work on finding inner peace and never stop getting to know ourselves. Let's set the intention to tune in to what our bodies are trying to tell us. Let's work on regulating our emotions and meeting our own needs. We all deserve to have a strong relationship with our inner selves.
I wish you the best in your healing journey.