By Tanya Ruckstuhl-Valenti LICSW, MSW
You may recall from previous blogs that trauma consists of three core ingredients:
- The traumatic event
- Overwhelming feelings of helplessness and terror
- The negative self talk relative to the event.
Let’s take as an example the traumatic event of rape, because in the United States rape is the number one cause of PTSD.
Rape victims often will blame themselves for the trauma by saying things like, “I should have known better than to _________ (fill in the blank here with anything from “answer the doorbell” to “wear perfume” to “be born female” to whatever you can think of that has no or almost no basis in reality).
Rape in and of itself is a traumatizing event, and feelings of helplessness and terror are perfectly logical emotional reactions.
But imagine how much MORE traumatizing it is once self blame is added to the mix.
It’s like installing a domestic violence perpetrator in your brain, then trying to solve topological problems while getting whacked upside the head.
EMDR, the type of therapy I use with trauma survivors, involves separating out the traumatic event, the emotions related to the trauma, the physical sensations related to trauma, and the negative cognition or belief system (aka: self blame or negative self talk).
How does this help?
One of the emotional characteristics of a post-trauma reaction is an intense urgency (“Yikes! I gotta do something”) and helplessness (“I’m trapped and can’t do anything”) surrounding the event which act as the infamous “rock and hard place.” A sense of emergency prevents a careful examination of the experience and the beliefs, further driving the pain and fear. A sense of helplessness saps all available energy and results in depression.
Emergencies, real or imagined, short-circuit analysis. For example, if you believe someone with a gun is chasing you, do you stop and look behind you to make sure your suspicions are correct or simply sprint away? Most of us would respond immediately and without thinking. And that is absolutely the right thing to do…as long as we correctly perceive the situation.
If we are incorrect—if the man with a gun is actually a kid selling Girl Scout cookies—than our misperception is costing us a sense of safety, a capacity to socialize, not to mention causing astronomical wear and tear on the old ticker.
In EMDR treatment, clients pendulate–meaning move back and forth– between thoughts and feelings, and between past and present. This separation and back and forth movement between thoughts and feelings appears to open up space for insights and perspective to occur where before there was only an internal man with a gun.
The movement back and forth between present and past allows the brain to finally know that the danger is over and you are safe. And this allows hyper vigilance, depression and anxiety to recede.
For anyone struggling with the emotional aftermath of abuse, neglect, or accidents I recommend EMDR with a skillful and experienced psychotherapist.
- What is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD (healthfieldmedicare.suite101.com)