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How Trauma Affects the Brain (and how EMDR Therapy helps)

The Neurobiology of Trauma

Understanding the neurobiology of trauma can be very helpful for individuals struggling with PTSD and trauma-related difficulties, such as anxiety and depression.

The limbic system is the part of the brain that lights up and becomes activated when an individual is experiencing a perceived threat. This activates the stress responses in the body, including fight, flight or freeze.

When that threat is perceived, the brain releases adrenocorticotropic hormone, which tells your body to release cortisol. The amygdala also tells your adrenal glands also produce adrenaline, which helps you fight or run away during a threatening situation.

The amygdala can assist in learning; however, cortisol shuts down the way that the hippocampus primarily functions. So while you may be able to survive a traumatic event, it has not been properly encoded into your brain as a memory due to the hippocampus being shut down.

This is why individuals with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) experience flashbacks, intrusive thoughts and behavioral reenactments. Because their brains think that the event is still happening.

How does EMDR work for PTSD & Trauma

(a simplified explanation)

Eye Movement Desensitization & Reprocessing, aka EMDR Therapy, is the #1 treatment for PTSD. It is recognized by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the National Alliance on Mental Illness as one of the best recommended evidence based approaches for the treatment of PTSD.

EMDR is an 8 phases approach to psychotherapy. One of the reasons why it works so well is that it helps the hippocampus STAY online while reprocessing a traumatic event.

How does it do that? That goes back to Phase 2 of EMDR, also known as the Resourcing or Stabilization Phase. This part of the treatment focuses on promoting safety, increasing mindfulness skills and expanding the brain and body's ability to tolerate stress.

This is important because once you're able to better tolerate stress, your body will not produce as much cortisol when you move toward Phases 3 - 8 of EMDR, also known as the activation and reprocessing phases. This means that you will be able to maintain dual awareness, the ability to be aware of your safety in the present, while also being able to focus on a traumatic event, at the same time.

This is why Phase 2 of EMDR (preparation and resourcing) is so important for effective treatment outcomes! Once the hippocampus is able to stay online, the brain will be able to take the information and learning from the amygdala and encode it all into memory. This is what turns a re-living into an actual memory.


Want to make sure you're following the 8 phases of EMDR confidently?

Then make sure to check out The EMDR Coach Treatment Planning Workbook - A 28 page reusable workbook filled with visual aides and done-for-you templates, which help you keep your treatment plans focused and organized!


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