Using EMDR to Treat Anxiety

November 30, 2013

Using EMDR to Treat Anxiety

by Dr. Wilfried Busse, PhD

Your pulse is racing and your palms are sweaty. You are having trouble keeping your breathing steady. Your brain is misfiring, making you think that you may be having a heart attack. The chances are, if you have not experienced this for yourself, someone close to you has. Did you know that there are an alarming number of people who reach out to emergency officials for what is commonly known as an anxiety, not a heart, attack?

Anxiety is a culmination of emotions usually associated with worry, fear and/or feeling severely uncomfortable in certain situations. Some people freeze, while others panic. However, only a select few experience an entire breakdown that requires medication to ease their nerves. Anxiety is now a major epidemic in today’s society. It makes one question what kinds of triggers set off an anxiety attack, and what kinds of methods of relief outside of medication?

Take some time to reflect on your life where your body reacted with any of the above symptoms. Perhaps it was when you had to give an oral presentation at school or work. How many of us have experienced test anxiety where our minds went blank or were preoccupied with fear with worry? Other anxiety triggers involve social settings or feeling overwhelmed with financial hardship or medical processes.

Anxiety can be crippling for many people. Those with academic or work-related anxiety frequently find themselves suffering from failing grades or a decreased work performance, even though they are good students or valuable employees. Some people with severe anxiety cannot hold down a job or successfully complete school. Anxiety has the potential to destroy lives, rendering them unable to function in everyday life activities. Simply put, anxiety is a form of trauma.

Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers is a book that came out a few years ago.  The main plot explored how zebras have finely tuned brains that allow them to sniff out danger in the wild and to get a jump start on evading a predator.  Their brains, however, are not complex enough to “remember” the event and “interpret” its “meaning.”  Therefore, they do not worry about it once the danger is past.  What we can take away from this is since they do not worry, they do not get ulcers.

With many of us, it is different.  We remember a dangerous or traumatic event and may develop anticipatory anxiety about it happening again.  Our nervous systems become overly sensitized to “expecting the worst,” and we may “see” the worst when there is no real threat.  Our brains become like an overly sensitive motion detector installed over the front entrance to our house. Just like how a light breeze or the motion of a fine rain drizzle can set off the motion detector, our bodies may react in similar ways even when in both scenarios, there is not a real intruder. When expecting and worrying about the “worst happening,” our brains go into a state of “fight or flight.”  In this state, a cascade of physiological responses is set off to protect us from danger.  Blood flow goes directly to the muscles to prepare an individual for “fight or flight” and away from the front part of their brain, which allow them to make a more calm and objective assessment of the perceived threat.  When fight or flight is set off prematurely, the body may feel like it is spinning out of control. It may feel like a panic or anxiety attack.

Psychiatrists and trauma therapists have been trying to find the most effective treatments for anxiety.  One of the types of therapy becoming more common with anxiety treatment is known as EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing).  A body of research continues to confirm its effectiveness.  EMDR is typically used with patients who suffer from PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) as well as other types of trauma. It has also been found to be effective in addressing anxiety or panic episodes, especially those that were precipitated by a traumatic event.

How does EMDR work to address the debilitating effects of panic or anxiety?  At the risk of oversimplifying, EMDR calms the nervous system by desensitizing the fight or flight response.  In fight or flight, the front part of the brain is “hijacked.”  Remember that the front part of the brain allows us to analyze a situation objectively and realistically and to take appropriate action.  When “hijacked” by the fear center of our brains (fight or flight), the frontal lobes tend to be biased by distorted perceptions by sensing danger when none is present.  EMDR calms the fear center and allows more realistic perceptions to take hold and allows more access to positive memories of how we acted in past stressful situations without going into a panic state.

Therapists using EMDR may solely use this technique or combine it with other forms of therapy to help people, at the very least, cope with anxiety. Any tools that anxiety-sufferers utilize will help them regain control over their lives because the concept of control is highly important to them. If you are ready to stop the health-limiting effects of anxiety, you can regain control of your life by seeking assistance from a licensed psychiatrist or trauma-specialized therapist.

Author Bio: Psychologist Dr. Wilfried Busse is driven by evidence-based therapy methods and integrates these methods into his practice for new or current patients dealing with trauma, PTSD, depression, grief and ADHD.

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