EMDR FOR ANXIETY
We cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them
― Albert Einstein
Anxiety is here and it’s not going away anytime soon
Almost every person in our western world has some level of anxiety. These days, it’s almost impossible to live without anxiety. Work stress, the neverending flow of emails and the expectations to be connected 24 hours a day, 7 days a week make it even worse. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, anxiety disorders are the most common mental health issue in the United States, affecting 40 million adults in the U.S., or 18.1% of the population.
But not everybody goes to therapy for anxiety.
If you’re paralyzed by your anxiety, or, if your health is suffering from the levels of stress you’re in every day – therapy can be helpful. Therapy CAN help but it doesn’t always help because not all forms of therapy are created equally.
Before treating clients with EMDR, I helped my clients with anxiety by teaching them how to meditate and develop better coping strategies. Most of the help I offered my clients was focused on teaching my clients to cope better with anxiety and stress. But in most cases I wasn’t able to help them to eliminate the anxiety.
How anxiety is being treated with talk-therapy
Let me tell you a little bit about how therapists help clients to deal with anxiety without EMDR:
- The therapist educates the client about anxiety and stress.
- The therapist helps the client recognize the situations that trigger anxiety.
- The therapist helps the client recognize what happens in her body when she’s anxious.
- The therapist teaches the client some coping strategies (changing thoughts, focusing on breathing, grounding skills, among other strategies).
- The therapist helps the client to plan when and how to use some coping strategies.
- The therapist recommends yoga, exercise, reading, relaxation time and creating more balance.
These are all great things to do. I do it all the time with my clients. And it helps.
But it’s not enough.
It’s not enough because it doesn’t eliminate your anxiety. It just helps you cope better. Sometimes.
Why talk-therapy has such limited outcomes for treatment of anxiety?
Talk therapy is just not as effective for anxiety. Here are the main reasons:
- Anxiety lives in the emotional part of the brain, which is non-verbal. The emotional brain doesn’t understand language.
- Anxiety affects the body. Talking is not helping to resolve somatic anxiety.
- Talk-therapy involves homework. Clients almost never do their homework. (my apologies to the few clients who do, but really, most clients don’t do therapy homework).
- Many clients come to talk therapy and share what causes their anxiety, over and over again. Week after week. Month after Month. Sometimes year after year. Getting things off your chest feels good in the moment but it doesn’t help to resolve your anxiety.
- Some forms of talk-therapy actually work. But they take a very long time. While some changes occur in the brain when practicing mindfulness, these changes take longer to rewire the brain. Sometimes years.
A little more about treating anxiety with talk-therapy
If you have anxiety and you choose to treat it by talking about it, your therapist will teach you to be more conscious – more mindful of some triggers or thoughts that cause your anxiety. In talk-therapy, developing awareness can be the main goal of treatment. While having more awareness can be helpful in some situations, it doesn’t eliminate what’s causing your anxiety.
Developing awareness is a little like taking an opioid for severe pain. It feels great in the moment when your pain goes away. But very quickly – your pain, emotional or physical, comes back.
So when you go to therapy, it may feel good to share your anxiety with a therapist. You might feel temporary relief, but in most cases, the next time you encounter a trigger – your nervous system is throwing you off balance.
Talking about your anxiety does not solve your anxiety.
Therapists who lack an understanding of how disturbance affects the brain will be less effective in trying to help you. EMDR therapy is based on an understanding of how the brain works. Therefore, EMDR is less about experimentation or trial-and-error. EMDR therapy is a proven, evidence-based method that helps rewire the brain.
For any therapy to be effective, the therapist needs to treat the core of the problem. In your case – what created the anxiety. Your anxiety started as a result of an event or a series of events that had wired your brain.
The events that started your anxiety are stuck in your brain in their original form. These events, as opposed to regular events, had not been processed by your brain, and, as a result, reminders of these events (triggers) lead to intense anxiety, fear, irritability, restlessness, racing thoughts and inability to concentrate.
Over time, your brain automatically learned to shift to fight or flight mode. When you’re in a fight or flight (or freeze) mode – your brain is sending your body some signals that you’re in danger.
The Anxious Brain
For anxious people, it is very hard to develop an awareness of thoughts, or metacognition – thoughts about thoughts. If you’re anxious, it can feel like you have no ability to control your thinking. You obsess. You worry. You think about things you shouldn’t think about. And it’s painful.
One of the most painful symptoms of anxiety is that it doesn’t let you enjoy the moment.
Most anxious people find it hard to develop an appreciation for special moments in life. It’s hard to enjoy the beauty of simple things like watching a sunset. It’s also hard to enjoy and appreciate relationships.
If you suffer from anxiety, it always runs in the background. If you’re anxious, you are more likely to interpret whatever happens around you in negative terms. This makes it hard to enjoy simple things like a meal or a walk in nature.
If I just described your situation – you should probably see a therapist. But how do you choose?
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Vs. EMDR in Treatment of Anxiety
If you have anxiety and you chose Cognitive-Behavioral-Therapy (CBT) as your form of treatment – your therapist will teach you to notice your negative, automatic thoughts that trigger your anxiety. Your CBT therapist will tell you that anxiety is not an emotional problem. It’s a thought problem. Applying logic to your emotions, according to Aaron Beck, the founder of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, will reduce your anxiety. I have a lot of Respect for Dr. Beck. But I disagree. When it comes to anxiety, logic fails.
Why Cognitive Behavioral Therapy has Limited Results with Treatment of Anxiety
The reason is very simple – anxiety doesn’t live in the rational part of the brain. Anxiety is stored in the limbic system, where language is not understood and logical thinking is not processed. If you have anxiety – something was, at some point in your life, dysfunctionally stored in the limbic system of your brain. Your limbic system is a name that was given to the area of your brain that contains structures like the hippocampus, amygdala, cingulate gyrus, thalamus, hypothalamus, and basal ganglia.
Your limbic system, if not corrected by rewiring (that’s done by a therapist, not an electrician), will keep doing what it’s been doing. Usually, anxiety gets stuck in the brain.
Sometimes anxiety is resolved. Naturally. The natural healing mechanism of the brain does what other systems in the body do. If you get the flu, your immune system, when it functions normally, will work harder to heal you from the flu. If you didn’t sleep well last night, and your system functions normally, you will be tired and sleep more tonight. If you have a minor injury, and your system functions normally, your body will regenerate the tissue.
If you become anxious, and your system functions normally, your brain will come to an adaptive resolution. It will heal. But when the brain has been wired out of balance, it doesn’t get back to normal. Your brain cannot achieve balance. Your autonomic nervous system keeps draining your energy and you’re not able to create the balance you need in order to feel calm.
This process can be compared to what happens to the immune system of people with HIV. The system fails. Luckily, we know how to help the system heal.
EMDR for anxiety – rewiring the anxious brain
EMDR therapy helps to increase connectivity in the brain, and, as a result, rewires the brain. By working with both sides of the brain, your EMDR therapist will activate the networks that trigger your anxiety. With bilateral stimulation (a gentle way to activate both sides of the brain) the neural networks that store your anxiety will integrate with the adaptive networks in your brain.
EMDR leads to increased activity and communication between the networks in your limbic system (anxiety) to the networks that are more logical and rational, in the prefrontal cortex. This activity leads to a rewiring of these neural networks in the brain. The result – anxiety does not dominate the brain anymore. Logic wins.
In EMDR for anxiety we transform the anxious thoughts to a balanced thoughts. As a result, psychological memory shifts and becomes an objective memory, and whatever triggered you in the past – stops. It becomes a part of your past.
When your life stops being controlled by anxiety, and your energy is being channeled to the present. Every experience becomes a part of your present. You are able to be in the here and now. When you are more present – life is more enjoyable. You still go to the same work, have the same parents and you still have to pay your mortgage, but you are able to enjoy a meal, and the time you spend with friends and family. Or just relaxing and watching TV.
Do you need a therapist to start meditating?
Mindfulness is a great approach to deal with anxiety. If you’re anxious – there is no doubt you need to help your brain and body to relax. Studies show the benefits of mindfulness meditation on the brain and even on the immune system. There are hundreds of studies that show the benefits of mindfulness. It is extremely helpful to practice mindfulness and relaxation skills to become more attuned to yourself and to your surroundings and reduce stress.
But do you really need therapy to practice mindfulness? (see resources below)
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