Can We Calm Our Nervous Systems?

Can We Calm Our Nervous Systems?

Dutch psychiatric pioneer of trauma treatment since the 1970s, Bessel van der Kolk, is one of the leading researchers on what supports people struggling to live with traumatic experiences. These psychological events have shaped their sense of safety in the world.

The APA defines psychological trauma as damage inflicted to a person’s mind as a result of one or more distressing events causing overwhelming amounts of stress that exceed the person’s ability to cope or integrate the emotion involved, eventually leading to serious, long-term negative consequences.

Bessel and colleagues believe there can be a multi-pronged approach that focuses on “calming the nervous system, increasing executive function, and grounding patients in the present.” Since the 1980s, Van Der Kolk and Francine Shapiro have explored a variety of clinical approaches, including neurofeedback, EMDR, psychodrama, and yoga. Dr. Shapiro is the creator of an evidence-based treatment model with great success called EMDR.

What is EMDR?

A Psychology Today article explores EMDR and finds that it is not a traditional talk therapy like most other psychotherapies; it’s more of mindfulness-based therapy, but that’s not the full story. EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. This is a highly structured model of therapeutic treatment that involves working with memories, body sensations, core-self beliefs, and emotions to eliminate the residential emotional, somatic, and cognitive remnants of painful past experiences.

The primary feature of this treatment is recovering a sense of safety in the body through the medium of embodiment. It may seem counter-intuitive but the body is the ultimate indicator of whether we feel safe in the world. If we’ve had traumatic experiences – ones where we felt physically, sexually, or emotionally threatened/wounded, or have experienced or witnessed horrific events – our entire body from neurons to our toes holds tightly against these sensations but can be haunted by them. We may feel trapped inexplicably, intruded upon by frightening images, obsessive thoughts; have poor sleep and self-care; difficulty concentrating or prone to making impulsive decisions; irritability, and experience of overall tightness leading to physical aches and pains. a chronic mistrust of others (even those closest to us); and most often, a chronic loss of hope for a different future.

What Does EMDR Do for Trauma Clients?

Again, a Psychology Today essay defines this: “By stimulating the brain in ways that lead it to process unprocessed or unhealed memories, patients experience a natural restoration and adaptive resolution, decreased emotional charge (desensitization, or the “D” of EMDR), and linkage to positive memory networks (reprocessing, or the “R” of EMDR).EMDR helps people address and work through those memories, sensations, and emotions and resume normal, adaptive, and healthy processing. An experience that may have triggered a negative response may no longer affect them the way it used to after EMDR treatment. Difficult experiences will likely become less upsetting.”

A number of complementary approaches to trauma treatment have been implicated as well, including stress-reduction through mindfulness meditation. I am trained to work with trauma and regularly use mindfulness.

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