EMDR— a therapy for the trigger reactions of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
This post was contributed by one of our readers. Many thanks to her!
How many times have we heard people say that any form of psychology is wrong for Christians? Can you count how many times you have heard that? I myself have lost count. Being told that, however, did cause me great confusion, because as a Christian I did not have any desire to oppose God and what He wanted for my life – or didn’t want for my life. What books could I read? What blogs could I read? Was I safe at all?
A fair amount of time has passed now and I have had some professional counsel, read lots of books, benefited from ACFJ and the help given to me by Ps. Crippen and Barb, just to name a few. But there was still something gnawing at me about “why” I just was still having so much trouble with pain. I know that I will most likely be assailed with fear and bad memories for the remainder of my life, but this was not that and I could not pinpoint what it was. I knew it had nothing to do with my relationship with Christ and I also, through prayer, knew that He wanted me to be free from these affects of abuse. So, I decided to ask someone.
I now know that there is a great deal to be benefited from in the realm of psychology by people who have studied and know how the brain actually works. I was amazed to learn that repeated abuse causes pathways to develop in the brain that then automatically come to the forefront upon any form of “reminder” of abuse and/or trauma. And it doesn’t have to be abusive. Just one word can trigger your brain to those pathways.
It works this way. Take a surgeon for example. He studies the body and learns exactly where to operate for let’s say, appendicitis. He is well versed in all the territory of the human body and has studied for years, taken tests and memorized all sorts of data and information. Hence, when he picks up the scalpel to perform that specific surgery, his brain automatically recalls the information and his brain instantly returns to the pathways made through the repeated course of years of study on this subject and tells or reminds the doctor exactly where to place that scalpel. The surgeon’s brain actually lays out the picture and the surgeon sees everything playing out in his mind. If the surgeon makes the incision and there is no appendix there he may panic. He most certainly will have some sort of reaction and response to the fact that there is no appendix in that specific area. Just so you know, not all peoples’ appendix lies in the same place. Some are higher and some can be much, much lower than what would be considered “normal”. In any event, the pathways that were made in the surgeon’s brain may falter and depending upon the surgeon’s personality, the reaction may be mild to extreme. Anywhere from mild confusion to extreme panic and anxiety with fear, caused because he believes he may have made an error. If the surgeon has had this happen before his reaction will be milder, as his brain will have already made some form of pathway about how to react and what to do because the event has happened to him before. However, because that pathway is less traveled, it may take him time after his initial response for his brain to pull up that pathway. It has not been traveled very much. The “rut”, isn’t as deep.
So it is with the mind of the victim of abuse. Years of abuse have created certain pathways that the brain has just automatically made as the result of abuse. Every time victimization happens a pathway is reinforced until the pathway is dug into the brain like a deep “rut” in a road. When events turn a certain way, like the wheel on a car, the brain takes the “rut” route, because it is well paved. Sounds pretty hopeless, doesn’t it? But it is not. Amazingly enough, knowing how to conquer this “rut” development is God’s way of helping us heal! There is hope – and lots of it!
God created us with a brain that would develop these pathways for a reason. It aids us in memorizing His Word, recalling specific events from His Word that build our faith and help us with fear, remembering stories about how God loves us and how God works in our lives, among numerous other things in life that are good and need to be embedded deeply in our minds. However, sin coming into the world meant that now bad things were going to happen to us and it brought about a whole other area that causes immense damage and deep trauma and pain when we are abused or suffer trauma in other ways. The road gets well paved for good and for bad. But here is some good news about changing all of that.
There is a method of therapy / counselling that research has shown to give great benefits to victims of abuse and trauma. It is called EMDR. It is completely safe and uses no gimmicks or devices – just you and a counselor. You can read about it here: What is EMDR [Internet Archive link]
The process works by bringing up the old memories that still cause trauma (not reinventing any memories, but just using what you remember) and taking them from the short term area of the brain where they would have been stored and placing them into the long-term memory area of the brain. That way, when you are triggered, your response is not instantly connected with the pathways in your brain made by abuse, but rather it gives you a way to form new thoughts and memories and pathways so that the old can be remembered yet not surface so easily. It is part of trauma therapy. It is safe, involves no form of hypnosis or any other “strange” form of therapy and is only based upon what is troubling you or what triggers you may have. It is particularly helpful for people with PTSD. In one form of this therapy they may use touch or tapping, but in another form of this therapy they may just use written exercises that will accomplish the same thing.
For instance, because of the deep spiritual and psychological abuse I have suffered at the hands of an old pastor/elder and wife situation, along with my abuser, there are too many pathways that have formed that lead me to now have instant fear or anxiety about certain situations that I never had before. It does not take long to form these pathways in the brain. It just takes a situation of extreme trauma happening. For instance, a rape takes place rather quickly but can cause a long-term pathway to form due to the intensity of the trauma. Other abuses can happen over longer periods, but with less intensity than, for instance a rape or other form of abuse that happens rather quickly and is short lived.
In my case, the spiritual abuse was over a long period but the intense level of abuse when they brought charges and excommunicated me for putting my abuser out of my home was short and violently psychologically abusive in that they shared my counseling notes containing details of sexual abuse with the entire “c”hurch and others outside the “c”hurch, hanging their charges on the walls of their cult for anyone to read. This caused intense and immense damage to me. I have learned that my relationship with Christ has nothing to do with these forms of heinous abuse that have been done to me. I was/am just dealing with very abusive people. However, over time, no matter how strong you believe yourself to be, any form of abuse can cause this type of intense damage to you and you don’t even realize it is happening. This is what weakens us and may be what causes us to stay so long with the abuser or in an abusive situation such as a “c”hurch situation. Sometimes, the more coping mechanisms we develop, the longer we stay. Abuses of all types cause these pathways to form. The results may be mild or severe symptoms. We are all different in our types of personalities and our backgrounds, etc., so a lot depends on where you have come from and how much intense trauma has taken place in your life and how you would handle abuse according to your personality and what your coping methods are. People who are experiencing PTSD, as I am, would probably benefit from this type of counseling.
The trauma I suffered was so heinous and intense to me that it caused these pathways to form and has left me in the state I am. This type of counseling is no more expensive than ordinary counseling, but can bring trauma to the surface and can be hard to go through. The benefits are said to be more than worth it though. Wouldn’t it be nice, to not have those awful pathways in your brain? Wouldn’t it be nice to have pathways that actually lead to truth and knowledge of who we are in Christ and how God sees us, instead? Yes, yes it would. We may all have the knowledge of who we are in Christ and how God sees us, but do our thoughts instantly go to that area and retrieve those thoughts and beliefs when we are under the gun with triggers or seeing our abusers, or do our brains travel to the most common pathway that has been made through abuse?
People tend to think that all we have to do is say positive things to ourselves each time we are in a situation when we are triggered, and I am not saying that that is not possible for some people, but for most victims of long-term abuse or short term violent psychological or physical or sexual abuse (ex: excommunication, rape, incest, spiritual abuse, sexual or physical abuse, emotional abuse, etc.) that is not the case.
Over a period of time you are taught to do this on your own. I do not know how that works, but I do know that the counseling concerning this technique sounds more than worth the trouble and time, although I do not look forward to re-living the trauma I have worked hard to lay aside and heal from. But the truth is, I am not really healing – I am simply shoving it out of my mind to deal with later. However, if re-living it all and dealing with it frees me from having to live through it from day to day, then I am all for it. I have been told, that the trauma I have lived through in my life is so horrific that it will feel like I am living a completely new life to have even one-quarter of it re-routed in my brain. You see, being a Christian does not automatically make things work like magic in our lives. God has given us wisdom and learning and knowledge to help us in this world, heal from the damages caused to us by others sinning against us, and this is just one of those means. God does not have a magic wand that He waves over us to bring us healing. He uses other people to whom He has given wisdom and insight because He wants us to be whole and healed and free from all the effects that have come to us because of abuse. Just like He wants a sick person’s appendix removed by a skilled surgeon so they can recover and live and be whole again. He likewise wants all of us here who have suffered in other ways to be healed, made whole and to live again.