Trauma triggers one of our most primal drives instilled in us by evolutionary biology – the survival instinct. When an event occurs that includes a threat to our existence (either perceived or real as both are experienced the same way in the limbic brain), the body-mind system records every sight, sound, smell, and body sensation present in addition to the emotional/physical states experienced at that precise moment. It is then processed through the lens of one’s biological/emotional age at the time of the occurrence, which is also “frozen” in memory. Because the event falls so far outside the normal flow of day-to-day life, and represents a threat to our survival, the body-mind system “tags” such an event as highly significant. Evolutionary biology has adapted many strategies designed to keep us alive and out of danger. One result of this “tagging” is that the sympathetic part of the autonomic nervous system (tasked with the “fight or flight” response) is put into a heightened state of alertness that becomes chronic (although very adaptively necessary at a given moment), and begins to continuously scan the horizon to avoid any such situations in the future.
As this adaptive defense mechanism begins to dominate an individual’s experience of reality, it leaves that individual in a state of hyperarousal without the ability to stop feeling threatened. Consciousness experiences this ongoing hyper-aroused state as tortuous in the present moment. Intense feelings of anxiety, flashbacks to the traumatic experience(s), depression and physical reactions such as trembling, racing heartbeat and localized tightness among others become the norm. The psyche enters into a war with itself with the emotional part of the brain (limbic system) and logic part of the brain (neocortex) no longer being in harmony with each other regarding how safe the present moment is, and which version of reality is accurate. When this occurs, consciousness begins to seek an escape from the present moment as it is perceived to be fundamentally dangerous and painful. This phenomenon is the foundation for dysregulation and maladaptive behaviors of all kinds including substance abuse, overindulgence in sexual behaviors, over-compensation in the form of exercise, work and rigid thinking. Brief pleasures, keeping the brain so engaged that it doesn’t have time to think about or feel the effects of trauma, or numbness becomes far preferable to this tortured, internal war.
The limbic brain, which is not “conscious” in the same sense that the logic brain is, “hijacks” reality and is incredibly reactive to seemingly benign triggers, or often to no apparent triggers at all. This way of being in the world becomes entrenched as thoughts and associated negative feelings triggered by past events continue to live in the present. Feelings of hopelessness and fear of future events and encounters also become prevalent. This long-term response to trauma is maladaptive, however, and occurs in part because the central nervous system is not allowed to complete a cycle of trauma discharge. Trauma psychotherapist Peter Levine is his book “Waking the Tiger” outlines this concept of trauma discharge from the central nervous system. Levine first connected this phenomenon to trauma survivors while observing prey animals in the wild.
“I realized that animals in the wild or I postulated that animals in the wild, if they were to survive and if the species were to survive, they would have to be able to shake off the encounters they had with predators. If you see a coyote chasing a rabbit and the race goes on and then the rabbit is just able to escape, it goes home, goes to its hole in the ground. What does it say? Does it say, “I don’t want to ever get out of here, there’s too much danger, everything’s threatening”?
It has to go back there to survive. I reason there must be something. Again, the part of our brains, this came from my research and medical biophysics, that the same part of our brains that are involved with threat and with other instincts, we share almost identically with all other mammals and primates.
There must be something that they do or something that they don’t do that gives them this relative immunity. If that’s the case, how can I use those to help people also develop in a way retrospectively that capacity, that resilience, that immunity to being traumatized?
I spent a lot of time observing animals in many different situations. In many of my travels around the world, I would be able to speak to different wildlife managers and so forth. I told them about what I was observing in my clients and I remember one guide, I think he was from Kenya, he said, “Oh, exactly what you’re describing, which were these gentle, trembling, and shaking. That’s exactly what we observe in animals.” They would have to capture the animal, cage it, and then release it in the park. When they’re in the cage, if they don’t shake and tremble, the way you describe, they won’t survive.”
This psychic discharge was incredibly adaptive for our ancestors. A rustling in the tall grass, for example, may have indicated a predator was about to attack. In such instances, the fight or flight response could be immediately employed as Mother Nature intended it to be. One’s ability to choose whether to fight or run gives an individual a sense of power and control over situation. Once the fight has occurred or a person escapes to safety, the nervous system resets itself and trauma does not occur.
Our intelligence, however, has evolved far faster than our biology. Man creates situations never observed in any other species in nature. Abusing another individual for personal gain, sex trafficking and torture just to name a few stimulates the victim’s survival instincts as it did in our ancestors. In such instances though, the fight or flight response cannot be completed. The freeze reaction and disassociation is the only recourse, which locks the trauma in the mind and the emotional and physical body. Consciousness, however, was not designed to handle the horror caused by such events, and the subsequent hijacking of reality by the emotional brain. Such traumatic occurrences therefore fall far outside the harmony of the natural order and can be regarded as abominations.
Classic EMDR and Approaching Trauma
EMDR appears to act as an interface between the logic and limbic brain. It also appears to put conscious thought into a type of “standby” mode as clients focus on the eye movements that allows access to neural pathways not ordinarily accessible in the brain’s default mode of operation. Access to these pathways allows for the mind to make associations that don’t appear to be possible under the traditional psychotherapy model and stimulates the psyche’s inherent healing mechanism as associated emotions and physical stimuli are desensitized and reprocessed. Another way that this may be conceptualized is that trauma memories appear to be improperly stored in short-term memory (hence the overwhelming emotional and physical reactions once someone is triggered as the limbic brain recognizes a trigger as an indication that the trauma is occurring in the present moment). Once associations are made, the pattern recognition component of consciousness is able to reorganize what were fragmentary and chaotic pieces into a new cohesive whole, and the memory is reordered and stored properly in long-term memory. Associated emotions and physical reactions are also uncoupled from the memory and discharged. Accompanying realization and insights that clients gain through this process appear to bring the body/brain and sympathetic nervous system back into harmony. Additionally, realizations and insights emanate from the client’s own consciousness, which appears to have far greater impact on self-understanding and insight into what has occurred to them. Far more so than having an “expert” provide insight from an outside perspective that then must be incorporated into existing schemas.
EMDR stimulates the parasympathetic component of the autonomic nervous system (“rest and digest” part of the system that returns the body to homeostasis after the fight or flight response is triggered) via a section of the Vagal nerve attached to the eyes. This allows for a more relaxed body state to emerge when the logic part of the mind is occupied with following the eye movements. Associated emotional and physical states also encoded with the target memories can then be accessed more readily when a client is in this state and therapeutically worked with.
EMDR, therefore, appears to reset the autonomic nervous system by degrees, as target memories are processed through sequentially. This can be a slow process, particularly if the trauma is severe. What remains missing in this approach is a discharge cycle outlined in Levine’s work. As stated, human beings share much of the same nervous system structures as other mammals, and thus the “reset” discharge cycle observed in prey animals in the wild may possibly be replicable even after the initial experience(s) have passed.
Somatic-Sensory EMDR – Hypothesis
The limbic part of the brain doesn’t process language (which is done in with the frontal, temporal and parietal lobes working in conjunction) or have a sense of time (which is processed primarily in dorsolateral prefrontal right cortex). It is conscious, but not in the same way as one would classically define consciousness through deductive reasoning. We “feel” this part of awareness as emotional reactions to stimuli and intuitive responses.
Because this part of the brain does not process time, language and “I-ness” as the logic brain, it may be possible to complete the cycle of trauma discharge in an EMDR state, and guide the emotional part of the brain into completing the cycle of discharge long after the initial incident has occurred, thus unlocking the long-term effects of trauma from the emotional and physical body.
This process would involve experiencing a new “emotional reality” related to a target memory that the autonomic nervous system would accept as “true.” Clients would be instructed to envision an alternate version of a traumatic event during EMDR processing that allowed for the fight or flight response to be completed. Mirror neurons (neurons that fire both when an individual does an action or experiences an event, and when that individual observes the same action performed or experienced by another, as if the observer him/herself where the active participant – think being scared by a horror film although one is perfectly safe sitting on the couch) contained in the brain view this alternate experience has emotionally “true,” even though the client “knows” that this version of events is objectively untrue.
This is not to suggest that a false narrative is given to clients to substitute for the actual events that occurred, or that what occurred be disregarded or minimalized in any fashion. Rather, because the limbic brain processes emotions and not logic and sequential events, hypothetically, there would be an “emotional reframing”” of traumatic events that would provoke the appropriate physiological trauma response that was not allowed to occur at the time of the actual event. Such a discharge, if provokable in this manner, may prove very therapeutic for certain clients experiencing recalcitrant PTSD symptoms in their day-to-day lives.