You may feel anxious or overwhelmed and just want to escape daily life. Alternatively you may suffer anger outbursts following the uncontrollable path of self-destruction. Then, when the passion passes you fall into a numb ambivalence and unintentionally take the route of self-sabotage.
For most people the crisis in one’s life is a slow realisation, as the norm becomes increasingly unpleasant. When the crunch time arrives you’re essentially in crisis or suffering from trauma. Continuous life stress can equate to the trauma of a car crash, so many suffer trauma in silence.
Crisis and trauma are two distinct experiences that challenge an individual to think, react, and behave protectively due to perceptions of stress or danger, real or imagined. Most of the time, crisis precedes trauma. However, if trauma is not resolved, it may act as the springboard for further crises that otherwise would not occur. The good news is that crisis or trauma tends to drive you to seek help and support.
When you do, life becomes easier, you feel calmer and more in control, and your energy returns. You also strengthen your ability to handle future stress.
What’s the difference between a crisis and trauma?
Dr Richard James (2008) defines a crisis as a situation that creates a level of significant challenge and difficulty for a person to overcome by reason of inadequate resources or capability; and in turn, the situation poses an imminent or perceived threat of harm. Its symptoms include the flooding of thoughts, somatic reactions (e.g. feeling flushed, heart pounding), and dilemma, which require immediate action upon its distressing intrusion, for example you could suddenly feel anxious, lash out, cry and then sink into a depression.
Dr. Peter Levine (2015) describes trauma as the body’s natural response to overwhelming events. Trauma is the aftermath of crisis, and entails the residual emotional scars from amygdala injury that surviving the crisis created. (The amygdala is the brain’s emotional centre). Trauma can also ensue in a minor crisis if the client inherited a predisposition for trauma or early life stress during the developing stages of the brain.
Dr. James (2008) describes four types of crises that occur: developmental, situational, existential and ecosystemic. Developmental crises are simply the challenges a client faces with normal life transitions, such as becoming a parent, midlife expectations, empty nest syndrome, or ageing.
A situational crisis occurs when a life event disrupts a client’s homeostasis and redefines their identity, way of life or perceptions of the future appear catastrophic; e.g.: the death of a loved one, divorce, loss of a job, or financial ruin.
Existential crises are inward challenges within a client to question his or her own worth, abilities or views of a positive future (Sanders, 2013). In existential crises, the personal struggle permeates to ramifications in most to all facets of the client’s life: work, home and social settings.
Ecosystemic crises are major environmental events that were unpredicted and out of anyone’s control, such as natural disasters or terrorism and the client was directly or indirectly affected by its occurrence to a level of despair.
Take what’s bothering you and notice - how does it bother you?
1. Identify your triggers - describe the situation what bothered you (memory)
2. Assign an image to this memory - if you think of this memory what image comes to mind (e.g.: it could be the person's stance and the clothes they wore)
3. What does this memory make you feel about yourself? (This is a negative cognition e.g.: I felt powerless)
4. What emotion did you feel? (e.g.: Angry)
5. Where did you feel it in the body? e.g.: In the stomach
Consider your responses to the above questions in light of the crisis domain. Now you have a better understanding of what is happening to you and why. So, how can you look after yourself to feel better? What action can you take to prevent reacting to a situation in a way you don’t want to? Do you need extra help from therapy? This is where EMDR therapy helps people overcome unwanted emotion and self-sabotaging behaviour.
What is EMDR therapy?
Firstly let’s understand how EMDR works in simple terms. For starters you could think of your brain as a perfectly organised electronic personal diary. Every day is recorded as a separate memory file and each memory is categorised by three main ways:
1 - Information coming into your brain (what you see, smell, touch or hear, e.g: smelling a rose)
2 - How this information makes your feel and think (e.g.: you cry and feel sad)
3 - What you do with these thoughts and feelings (e.g.: you snap the rose in two)
With age your brain develops into a searchable reference library of information - always reorganising itself to store more memories. As you go through life, your brain matches the memories with each-other so you can use them as a short cut for learning that then guides your behaviour e.g. remember how excited you become to see your best friend? This exciting feeling is your brain encouraging you to see him/her because it remembers how happy you felt with him/her previously.
Your brain has one goal: to keep you happy and safe - and it uses memory to do so. Please note: your brain’s ability is regulated by age and some life experiences are really hard to make into memories (e.g. divorcing parents / death of a grandparent). A young brain isn’t fully formed so its memory formation and categorisation system isn’t optimal. Normally your family supports you through this process. Sometimes families can’t help: you have to learn for yourself; then your age and experience determines how well you record and categorise memory e.g. you may only record the emotion (e.g. crying) and store it under senses (e.g. smelling roses). So the next time you smell a rose you will cry. When your brain finds matching memories hard you may feel muddled, unsure of yourself and low on energy.
Sometimes events are so horrible that the brain’s library system ‘blocks’ the memory from being matched because it doesn’t want you to remember an event. You tend to remember these memories in nightmares or the brain may ‘secretly’ match these memories, and you can tell when it happens because you tend to feel extremely upset or behave “anti-socially.”
When you feel stuck EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing therapy) can help. EMDR works with your brain to reboot the above mentioned ‘diary system’ by kick-starting the recording and categorisation system helping to re-make and re-enter memories into the matching system which is also re-set. The therapist asks about what’s good and bad in your life (no details necessary). You’ll probably be given exercises to do and see how you feel afterwards (this is to ensure you know how respond to emotional events in a healthy manner). You’ll learn more about this memory matching system in the context of your life: When you’re ready to kick-start it (after multiple sessions) you’ll be asked to focus on specific memories whilst being asked to follow a finger with your eyes. This eye movement is key for ‘re-booting’ and you do it when sleeping (therapists can explain more).
Whilst re-booting you’ll remember all sorts of things from your past but knowing that you are now safe your brain can process what it didn’t manage to previously. By the end of therapy you’ll feel happier again. So in short, no matter your crisis or trauma and your consequential response to it, EMDR can help you be the best you by helping your brain to function better. This enables you to crack on with the life you want to lead feeling calmer, happier and more confident.