When we live through dangerous experiences, our bodies take notice and remember — consciously and unconsciously. After a traumatic event, we take some of what we learned and deliberately make our world safer. Survivors of sexual assault, for example, often adopt life-preserving strategies based on their experiences. They may stop accepting drinks from strangers or take longer getting to know a new partner in public before being together alone. Similarly, after a car accident a driver may decide to stay off the phone while driving or avoid certain dangerous routes. These efforts are conscious attempts to avoid a repeat of the trauma.
After a trauma, our unconscious mind, too, gets involved. It will cast a wide net to protect us from the new danger in our lives. When we come across a situation that has similar elements to the terrifying event — sights, smells, thoughts about ourselves or the world — our bodies react to protect us. Unfortunately, we might find ourselves getting triggered by all kinds of non-dangerous experiences, just because they bear some resemblance to the awful ones we lived through in the past. After a sexual assault, for example, any touch may seem dangerous, even when it’s the touch of a friend or a chosen lover.
When there are a lot of traumas, the triggering may be widespread. This is particularly true if the traumas occurred in childhood when we were dependent upon the adults around us for everything – food, clothing, shelter, love and safety. Two related thoughts often take root in childhood that contribute to widespread triggering: (1) the painful things that happened were my fault; and (2) I’ll never be safe in the world. Most childhood abuse survivors were told repeatedly (as part of the abuse) that they were bad and deserved it. Eventually, we believe what we’re told, especially when the information comes from family members. And when we believe we’re bad, we also believe we’ll never be safe. Because we don’t deserve to be.
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) provides the structure to revise the unconscious lessons learned from these frightening experiences. It allows you to challenge the most deeply-rooted negative beliefs about yourself and the world connected to these traumas. Once these ideas are challenged, you are free to see the world clearly for what it can provide you today. You are able to acknowledge, at the deepest level, that your traumatic experiences are over. And that as of right now, today, you are both safe and lovable. You discover that you don’t need to remember what happened with as much fear and clarity to protect yourself now. When this becomes apparent, to your mind and body, you are able to join your life as it is today with more confidence, hope, and considerably less anxiety.