Trauma Therapy

EMDR: When It Works Well and What It's Like

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By Mirela Bitkowski, MA

More than three decades ago, therapist and researcher Dr. Francine Shapiro, developed a type of trauma therapy called Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, or EMDR.  The therapy was born from an observation she made walking in a park one day. Shapiro noticed that moving her eyes appeared to decrease negative emotions associated with certain bad memories.

She combined other therapeutic components with eye movement and developed the researched and validated therapeutic protocol that is used today. EMDR therapy is a useful treatment for the after-effects of trauma and other negative life experiences.

 When EMDR Works Well

EMDR works well when your brain finds an experience (or set of experiences) too overwhelming and interferes with or limits your ability to function in, and enjoy, your daily life.

Do you avoid, ignore, or harmfully cope with a past event or interaction? EMDR can help you reset how you accept and deal with the associated recollections and feelings.

The key idea behind this type of therapy is that our brains work optimally via an “adaptive information processing system,” much like that of computer mainframe or network. In this way, our memories, visual perceptions, emotions, and sensations are linked together.

In essence, our mental “computers” help us adapt during trying circumstances. It gets us through bad experiences by making a connection to our stored information that explains the situation and soothes our upset. Unfortunately, a traumatic occurrence can short-circuit that mental ability. Trauma is often a “processor virus” that crashes our brain’s adaptive operations.

EMDR essentially debugs that internal processing system.

What EMDR is Like

The key to EMDR treatment working well is rooted in a procedure called “bi-lateral stimulation.”

For instance, a therapist might move their hand or an object from side-to-side in front of you, instructing you to follow it with your eyes. At the same time, targeting a disturbing memory or trigger. Bilateral eye movements (or other external stimuli like taps or tones) help integrate, reprocess the way your brain has processed the experience.

EMDR has been proven to create new associations, allowing you to access the memories in a more adaptive way. You can remember, learn, and grow from the experiences without feeling emotionally wounded or held back by them.

In addition, EMDR has proven itself to be a more desirable and effective mode of therapy for the following reasons too:

  • EMDR treatment approaches anxiety differently. Rather than trying to overcome trauma exposure or trigger desensitization, EMDR ‘re-wires’ how your brain perceives the past as opposed to numbing you to triggers.

  • EMDR is a “less talk, more action” approach. Sometimes continually talking about a negative experience is problematic. Other therapy methods may feel overwhelming or hinder the pace of treatment. EMDR addresses memories in a more specific manner.

  • EMDR generally consumes less time. Some therapies which require group work or homework. EMDR is an in-session approach. Aside from a possible journal (to personally record progress), very little is required on your own.

Who to Seek for EMDR Treatment?

Only trained mental health professionals provide EMDR therapy. A trained EMDR therapist has undertaken at a minimum, basic EMDR training and consultation. Many EMDR trained therapists continue their training by attending advanced classes addressing the use of EMDR in specific cases, such as anxiety, substance abuse, migraine headaches, PTSD, complex trauma, and dissociative disorders, to name only a few. Therapists can also become certified EMDR providers by meeting required benchmarks of case consultations and supervision.

Are you are suffering from persistent negative emotions? Does discomfort related to a difficult past event, relationship, or trauma in your past get in your way often?

EMDR may be worth investigating.

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Mirela Bitkowski, MA, LPC Intern, sees clients at the Relationship Counseling Center of Austin. Mirela is trained in EMDR therapy and can use it to help you work through complex trauma, PTSD, anxiety, and beyond. If you are curious if EMDR therapy is right for you, contact Mirela at (512) 270-4883, ext. 115, or request an appointment with her on the RCC Austin Scheduling page.

 

Overwhelmed By Personal Loss? 5 Ways To Help Ease The Pain

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By Mirela Bitkowski, MA

We often associate personal loss with the death of a loved one. Grief, however, is not confined solely to death. A health crisis, career change, a home sale, or the termination of a relationship or marriage– there are numerous pieces of life, that, through the progression of time, we might eventually lose.

Grieving the parts of life that we once loved and cherished is painful, and the steps we take towards recovery may be very similar to the grieving process of losing a loved one.

Whether it was anticipated or not, don’t diminish the loss you’re experiencing. Instead, use the following five ways to help cope and ease the pain of your personal loss.

1.   Be patient

It’s important that you give yourself the time and space to grieve. There’s no time limit for how long you should feel sad, nor is there a schedule for when you should be experiencing particular emotions. This is a normal time to undergo a wide range of emotions, so try not to judge yourself for feeling the way you do. This is a tough and transitional time, as you may be encountering something foreign for the very first time; remember to be as kind to yourself as you would be to a friend.

2.   Express and share your feelings

Having a support group of close friends and family members is crucial during trying times. Keeping your feelings bottled up will only be harmful to you, in both the short term as well as the long run. You don’t need to share your struggle with coworkers or surface-level friends, but it will be beneficial to confide in those you trust.

You may also consider reaching out to a professional. Getting in touch with a therapist is often beneficial. This doesn’t have to be a life-long commitment, but it is helpful to process your feelings with a professional during such times.

3.   Find a positive rather than a negative outlet

Experiencing personal loss elicits a surplus of negative feelings. Thus, it’s crucial that you discover a way to cope with these emotions. Some people turn to drinking, smoking, drugs, gambling, or compulsive shopping as a form of relief or distraction, but each of these activities only masks the problem and could eventually lead to an addiction. Instead of turning to one of these, seek healthier options. Journaling, exercising, and practicing self-care are all good alternatives to negative coping mechanisms.

4.   Don’t hold onto regret

Ruminating on thoughts like “I should’ve been more communicative in my marriage,” or “I wish I had gone to the doctor sooner,” won’t change the outcome of your current situation. Of course, you can use what you’ve experienced as a learning opportunity moving forward, but don’t hold onto it as a form of self-punishment. There is nothing you can do to change the past, so instead, try to focus on the future.

5.   Make plans for the future

There is a mourning period for every personal loss, and, as mentioned earlier, it’s important to remain patient during this time. It’s also important, however, to remember that with time, the pain will ease. You will not be in this negative or low emotional state forever. To remind yourself of your potential, positive future, try taking small steps. Look forward to what the future might have in store.

Keep in mind that with change comes growth. It’s okay to look to something better ahead. For instance, if divorce or financial loss requires you to sell your home, get excited about decorating your new one and making it all yours. Explore the new area where you’re going to live; find new restaurants, coffee shops, hiking trails, etc. Allow yourself to be excited about the future without forgetting about the past.

If you’re struggling with a personal loss, remember that recovery and healing with the help of a therapist or a support group can be a valuable part of your process. Hold onto the hope that, with time and the proper coping skills, you can find relief and move ahead with cherished memories and lessons learned.
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Mirela Bitkowski, MA, LPC Intern, sees couples and individuals at the Relationship Counseling Center of Austin. For more help navigating personal loss in your life, contact Mirela at (512) 270-4883, ext. 103, or request an appointment with her on the RCC Austin Scheduling page.

PTSD and Trauma: How to Support Someone You Love

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Having a family member or close friend with PTSD and trauma can be hard. More than anything, you want to support and comfort a loved one who is suffering from post-traumatic stress or struggling to recover from a traumatic event. But you don’t know what to do. The usual ways of relating don’t work. You feel almost as hopeless and out of control as you imagine your loved one must be feeling.

What can you do?

Learn

One of the best things you can do is to learn everything you can about PTSD and trauma. You can’t truly know what your loved one is suffering, but being as informed as possible will help you make better choices. Encourage your loved one to get professional help. Facilitate his finding and participating in a support group. Offer to accompany your loved one to the doctor’s office or to support him by keeping track of medicine and appointments.

Listen

Though your instinct may be to take charge or give advice, it’s best to step back and let your loved one indicate how you can help. Your patient willingness to listen without judgment is more valuable than your words of wisdom. Let her know that she can trust you to be there for her.

Beware of Triggers

When you talk, talk positively. Be available when your loved one wants to talk, but don’t push him to talk about the trauma. That may trigger a flashback. Learn what triggers flashbacks so you can help avoid them.

Help with Sociability

PTSD and trauma make socializing difficult. Plan things to do together. Encourage contact with close friends. Family activities like going to dinner or a movie may help to keep things more normal and less stressful. Exercise together: walk, go for a bike ride. Exercise is good for both of you.

Give Space

Don’t try to force your loved one to communicate or to join in activities. He may not want your help or your opinion. Withdrawing is a symptom of PTSD and trauma. He may not feel like talking. Group activities and being around other people may increase his anxiety. But be sure to let him know that you are there to help when he is ready.

Respect

Respect your loved one. Don’t minimize her feelings and symptoms. Don’t belittle what she is going through. Avoid remarks like telling her to “get over it.” This is hurtful and will only make things worse.

Recognize your loved one’s strengths and encourage self-esteem. She is not stupid or weak, she has a medical condition that interferes with her ability to cope the way she could before the trauma happened. Be patient with your loved one’s mistakes. Let her know you care by noticing when things are not going well.

Anger Management

Anger is often a cover for other emotions: grief, helplessness, guilt. If your loved one is having trouble coping with feelings of anger, know that the physical and emotional stress he or she is living with can lead to overreacting to ordinary stressful events.

Watch for the signs of anger: clenched fists, agitation, loud voice. When you see these signs, take steps to defuse the situation. Remain calm yourself. Give your loved one space. Don’t crowd or grab. Ask “What can I do to help you right now?” Suggest a timeout. And put safety first. If you can’t get your loved one to calm down, leave, lock yourself in a room, or call 911 if you fear he may hurt himself or others.

Take Care of Yourself

Finally, remember that you can’t care for someone else if you haven’t dealt with your own health and emotions. Find your own support system. Eat healthy food, get enough sleep. Get others involved in your loved one’s care. Set boundaries.

Believe in your loved one’s ability to recover. Believe in yourself.
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Counselors at the Relationship Counseling Center of Austin are trained to treat PTSD and trauma. If you are looking for a counselor to walk with you on your journey to recovery from traumatic life events. Contact us for scheduling at 512-270-4883, or complete the form on the RCC Austin Scheduling page and you will be contacted for scheduling.

Chaotic Childhood? Strategies to Help You Heal the Pain and Betrayal

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Children need consistency and stability to thrive, so growing up in a chaotic environment can have some negative effects. Growing up in an environment where abuse, neglect, substance abuse disorders and addiction, or untreated mental illnesses are present, are just a few things that can cause a chaotic childhood. With developing minds, kids’ brains are like sponges and will absorb everything they hear and see. If children witness more “bad” than “good,” these negative effects will accompany them into adulthood.

The pain of having a chaotic childhood is not something you can just forget about or snap your fingers and “get over.” There will be many lingering effects, especially if you were never given an appropriate emotional outlet or taught healthy coping mechanisms. These five tools can lead you on the right path toward healing your pain and betrayal.

1.  Seek Professional Help

Because children don’t have anything else as a frame of reference, difficult and traumatic situations become their normal. It’s often not until they reach adulthood that they begin to realize they experienced a chaotic childhood. Once this realization occurs, it can be confusing to navigate. Seeing a counseling professional can help undo years of negative thinking, coping, etc. You may have many suppressed memories, which are best discussed in a safe and monitored environment. The memories need to be explored and processed, but you may not feel comfortable sharing with family or friends. A therapist can provide a safe and non-judgmental environment to work through your emotions. While seeing a therapist might seem daunting, it’s the most successful way to heal the betrayal of a chaotic childhood.

2.  Develop Positive Skills

When we go into a situation where we feel unsafe, we develop a means to cope. If we lived in an unsafe situation (chaotic childhood), those coping mechanisms may, understandably, be negative. Isolation, shutting down, substance abuse problems, disordered eating, and self-harm are common, unhealthy coping mechanisms. It’s important to maintain a list of healthy and enjoyable activities to engage in when you’re feeling betrayed, unloved, or any other feeling from your childhood that might resurface. Examples of positive coping skills include reading, journaling, hiking, taking a walk, exercising, pampering yourself, watching your favorite movie, listening to your favorite musician, or engaging in creative expression.

3.  Talk It Out

Let your friends, trusted family members, partner, or spouse know what you’re going through. It may be tempting to isolate because that’s what feels familiar to you, but remember that isolation is a negative response to chaos. Opening up to your loved ones can feel scary at first, but it may surprise you at how receptive they can be. This is not something you should have to tackle alone, and having a supportive team of people by your side will make your healing process a lot more bearable.

4.  Silence Your Inner Critic

You know that voice who tells you that you’re not good enough, not worthy enough, not pretty enough, not successful enough? We call that voice our “inner critic.” We all have one, but some of us can shut it down easier than others. When you hear that voice start to speak up, instead of listening to it, try to counter it. For example, if you miss the deadline on a project and turn it in late, what is your inner critic saying to you? Does it drone on about how you’re lazy and stupid and never get anything right? If so, where do you think that voice is coming from? You weren’t born believing harsh things about yourself, so that is something you picked up sometime in your life – perhaps during your chaotic childhood. Learning to silence your inner critic is empowering once you realize the things you have been believing about yourself - the old, negative tapes playing over and over in your mind - are simply not true. You can learn to replace the inner critical thoughts with valid and positive affirmations when you begin to be aware of a pattern of self-criticism.

5.  Get In Touch With Your Inner Child

Your younger self did not get their needs met as a child. Unfortunately, there’s no way to go back in time and change this. You can, however, show your childhood self the love that you deserved. Find a picture of yourself as a child and show that child some empathy and compassion. Tell that young child that he or she did not deserve to be treated the way they were. Imagine yourself saying to that child the things you, as an adult, tell yourself now. Giving your inner child love is very healing part of this journey.

It takes time and a lot of work to overcome the pain from a painful and chaotic childhood, but don’t be intimidated. Seeking help from a qualified counselor to help you in your journey toward healing is one of the positive steps you can take to move forward. The reward you will receive is well worth the effort as you begin to experience a tremendous amount of emotional growth, self-respect, self-compassion, and empowerment.
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Call 512-270-4883 to schedule an appointment with one of the therapists at the Relationship Counseling Center of Austin (RCC Austin). Or, request an appointment by completing the form on the RCC Austin Scheduling Page.

Body Awareness: Why It's Important to Trust What Your Body is Telling You

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Intuition is a gift we were all given at infanthood. Intuition is how we connect with our inner selves through our bodies. It links closely with body awareness, also known as somatic awareness or “learning to feel your body.”

So, why is it that important to trust what your body is telling you?

Your intuition is a collection of your past experiences

You’ve probably been told many times to “trust your gut!” But, do you know why? Your gut is a host to a multitude of unconscious learned experiences, or things that our minds might not be ready to accept. Our intuition tries to notify us of something that our mind can’t yet comprehend or process.

Learning to trust your gut is something that sounds easy but proves to be quite difficult. As humans, we want reasons and answers, but not everything stems from logic. We focus so much on our minds and egos when we really should be more in tune with body awareness.

Your body gives you the first sign that something is off

Both internally and externally, your body can notify you if something isn’t right. For instance, if you’re feeling physically drained or seem to be in a bad headspace after spending time with someone, he or she may be toxic for you to be around.

Maybe you’ve noticed they gossip a lot, don’t have nice things to say, or are generally negative, but they’re your friend. It might be that your mind isn’t willing to accept just how toxic that person is. Thus, your body is literally giving you a clear sign that this person is draining and absorbs too much of your time and energy. If your mind isn’t yet able to accept it, your body awareness can tune you into how you’re really feeling.

Your mind can play tricks on you

The society and the environment we grow up in widely influences our brains and thought processes.

Let’s take food as an example. Many adults don’t have a healthy relationship with food, and almost all of us have entered into some form of disordered eating in our lifetime. Maybe you’ve eaten out of boredom or stress, maybe you’ve told yourself you weren’t hungry because you wanted to lose weight, maybe you’ve eaten fruit when your body was craving chocolate because you thought it was the healthier option. These are all things that your mind, not your body is telling you.

But if you look at the way babies see food, it’s completely different. They will quite literally scream for food when they’re hungry and refuse to open their mouths if they’re full. A baby’s body knows exactly what it needs and when.  And babies know how to listen to their bodies without overriding the natural process. The same goes for toddlers – if you offer them a snack of strawberries or chips, they will genuinely choose the option that their body is craving. They haven’t been immersed in society for long enough to think otherwise.

Your body gives you a variety of warning signs

Are you chronically sleepy? Constantly stressed? Have you experienced flu-like symptoms when you weren’t actually sick?

No, you’re not just being dramatic, something is weighing on you. Whether it’s your underpaying job or the stress of taking care of your children without help from a spouse, or something else, your body is trying to tell you something.

It’s important to listen to the warning signs that your body gives you because it’s telling you that something needs to change. Pain and discomfort are bodily signs that something is not right.

Still not sure you can hear what your body is telling you?

If you’re not in the habit of practicing body awareness, you might need some help tuning in. Individual counseling can help you get to the root of somatic symptoms that stem from trauma, anxiety, or stress. Why not schedule a session? A little time spent learning how to practice body awareness and productively link your mind and body can do wonders for your quality of life.
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Contact a counselor at the Relationship Counseling Center of Austin (RCC Austin) at 512-470-4883, or schedule an appointment with one our therapists by completing the form on the RCC Austin scheduling page. Someone will contact you as soon as possible for scheduling.

EMDR Treatment for Trauma? What Makes It Worth Trying?

By Linda Ramsey, MA, LPC Intern, LMFT Associate

Trauma – caused by abuse, natural disasters, or perhaps battlefield experiences – is a widespread problem. Studies have shown that unprocessed memories of the trauma are often at the base of the negative thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations a trauma victim experiences.

Professionals utilize several effective therapies for treating trauma, such as CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) or psychodynamic therapies. EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) therapy is one that has become popular in more recent years and shows promising results.

If you’re a trauma sufferer, is EMDR treatment for trauma worth trying?

To make an informed decision, consider what EMDR is, and how it treats trauma:

What is EMDR Therapy?

EMDR is a powerful psychotherapy that can help those suffering from trauma reprocess the pain of their experiences and return to emotional health.

It consists of an 8-phase treatment that helps identify the experiences that lay at the base of your emotional problems. By accessing the unprocessed memories of an experience and activating the brain’s information-processing system, EMDR treatment for trauma addresses the root of your issues.

  • Phases 1-3 lay the groundwork for the treatment plan and reprocessing procedure.
  • Phases 4-6 use bilateral eye movements for processing and installing positive self-beliefs. This part is not complete unless you can think about the target memory without feeling any tension.
  • Phases 7-8 make sure that you feel better and continue to feel in control between sessions.

This step-by-step procedure of EMDR therapy helps the therapist and you to monitor your progress. The amount of sessions needed to resolve your emotional problem depends much on the level of trauma that exists.

How does EMDR treat trauma?

Your brain is wired to transfer episodic memory into semantic memory networks during REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep. During this process, your brain stores the meaning of an experience, while eliminating any negative aspects of it, such as negative thoughts, emotions, and sensations.

However, some experiences can be so traumatic that they upset this natural processing system. The brain ends up processing the event incorrectly, storing the unpleasant aspects with the rest of the information. Any future encounter with a similar situation can trigger the unprocessed memory, which then resurfaces with all negative aspects attached.

EMDR treatment for trauma takes the memory of those disturbing events and makes the appropriate connections in your brain. In other words, it re-processes the memory to allow you to return to emotional balance. How?

During EMDR treatment, you focus on a troubling memory, then your therapist initiates bilateral eye movements either by having you follow their two fingers held up and moved back and forth in front of you, or using pulsing tappers held in your hands. This stimulates the same processes your brain uses during REM sleep. This allows your brain to naturally make the associations and neural connections that are needed to process the traumatic memory, namely without the negative aspects.

Why is EMDR Treatment for Trauma Worth Trying?

Consider a few points:

  • Many randomized studies have proven that EMDR is a highly effective treatment for trauma. In fact, changes can occur in only weeks, depending on the scope of your trauma, that often take months or years with other types of therapy.
  • While it is necessary to establish a trusting relationship with your therapist, the procedure used in EMDR therapy does not require you to relive in detail or give deeply private information about the traumatic experience. All the specifics happen in your mind. Your brain is doing the reprocessing, the therapist is only the facilitator.
  • An EMDR therapist cannot give subconscious suggestions to your mind during treatment. They can’t make you discard appropriate negative feelings (such as disgust over a rape). Neither can they make you believe anything positive that is not appropriate (such as suggesting you need to learn self-defense methods).

EMDR treatment for trauma can help your mind recover from emotional trauma as fully as your body can heal from physical trauma. EMDR can work well enough to help your painful memories be transformed into a sense of empowerment.

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Interested in discussing how EMDR Therapy might help you? Click here for information on how to contact Linda at the Relationship Counseling Center of Austin (RCC Austin).