If Nerves Could Talk: How PTSD Is Stored in Our Bodies and How to Treat It
Those who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and have yet to find relief with traditional therapy, may want to consider trying two relatively new treatment methods called somatic experiencing and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR). Both therapies aim to induce healing by allowing the brain to properly process traumatic events.
Complexity of PTSD Symptoms Make It Difficult to Treat
PTSD can be a very disruptive condition, with the development of nervous tics, flashbacks, nightmares, agitation, depression, mood swings, insomnia and more. Medication can help ease some of the anxiety, panic attacks and mood swings, but it can’t make the entire condition disappear.
That is why resolving the problem from within the body itself is such an appealing notion. If the body can heal itself, the entire complex of symptoms can be remedied, which is a feat that pharmaceuticals can’t achieve.
Development of Somatic Experiencing
Somatic experiencing is a therapeutic modality developed by Dr. Peter Levine after he observed prey animals being hunted in the wild. Prey animals are exposed to threatening situations multiple times a day, and yet do not seem to suffer any ill effects.
People exposed to threatening situations tend to have a difficult time relaxing, getting enough sleep, having an appetite or keeping feelings of anxiety, irritability and depression at bay. Prey animals not in direct danger are able to spend their time sleeping, eating and playing. In fact, not doing so would certainly weaken them and make them more of a target.
So what is the difference?
Dr. Levine noted that these animals had to release tension through the body, and he hypothesized that this physical reaction might be the key to allowing the mind to fully process the event. When an event is processed, it is stored in short- or long-term memory and the body understands that the event is no longer happening in the present.
Unlike animals, humans tend to hold on to tension by thinking about stressful events over and over and even feeling shame or fear. Dr. Levine believes that something in the way we react to stress can cause our natural ability to process events to become “stuck.” As such, the event has not been fully committed to the brain’s memory banks, meaning that the brain and body may sometimes think the threatening, stressful or traumatic event is still occurring.
Somatic experiencing is Dr. Levine’s method for unsticking the cogs in the machine and allowing the event to be processed and stored in memory. Once that is accomplished, the body can move on.
Somatic Experiencing in Action
Somatic experiencing involves recreating the effects of the trauma in very minor, manageable portions in a safe environment. Just talking about trauma and reimagining it can induce a nervous tic, increase one’s heart rate, or cause muscles to tense around the body.
The somatic experiencing method aims to address each of these physical reactions individually. The therapist helps the client identify changes in their physical body and to thus identify actions that mean “trauma” and actions that mean “safety.” The ability to switch from one to another helps with self-regulation and processing.
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing
EMDR is another therapeutic method that has been successful in treating PTSD. As with somatic experiencing, EMDR is based on the idea that trauma is re-lived in a PTSD patient because the brain has been unable to process it.
But the processing method of EMDR is rapid eye movement (REM), which naturally occurs during sleep. When we sleep, the REM phase is the time when the brain commits the events of the day to memory. For some reason, a traumatic event disrupts the brain’s ability to process it properly, resulting in a re-living of the experience through flashbacks or nightmares.
A therapist recreates this important REM phase by having the client follow a pointer while talking about or thinking about the traumatic event. Bits and pieces of the trauma are processed this way during each session, and symptoms gradually disappear.
If you struggle with PTSD and would like to learn more about either somatic experiencing or EMDR, please contact us today.
“Somatic Experiencing” – GoodTherapy.org
“What is EMDR” – EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization & Reprocessing) Institute, Inc.
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