How EMDR Therapy Effects the Senses
As trauma therapists using EMDR therapy, we look at how traumatic memories are stored in the body and mind. We can see in our clients that these memories include different sensory components. The nose, eyes, ears, mouth and skin send signals to the brain that are interpreted emotionally and physically and stored as emotional memories. In my clinical practice, I have witnessed how the different senses play a role in trauma events that are unprocessed, and how senses are so essential to complete integration and healing of a traumatic memory.
It is amazing how the five senses are so powerful to the human experience, especially when trauma has occurred. Practicing EMDR therapy, I have found that different senses can get stuck causing the client distress and painful symptoms such as becoming hyperalert to sounds, taste, touch, smells. When trauma occurs the mind and body can go into a flee, fight, freeze response which can imprint or heighten senses at the time of the trauma. These different senses can get stored as a part of the memory network as well as in distinctive areas of the brain.
Let’s take a look at these different areas of the brain and what job they are supposed to do in relationship to trauma.
The sense of sound or hearing is stored in the temporal lobe area of the brain which is located on the right side of the brain. The temporal lobe’s main job is hearing and selective listening, it helps us understand when someone is talking to us and comprehend their speech. Trauma affects the temporal lobe in multiple ways. For example, a client with a diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is more likely to struggle and be overwhelmed with everyday loud noises such as sirens, alarms, construction work and traffic due to their chronic states of hypervigilance and hyperarousal. Also, a sound that was experienced during a traumatic event when heard again triggers the stress response in the brain and can cause possible flight or fight response.
Let’s take a closer look how a sound, such as a firing of a gunshot can impact clients. The actual sound becomes stuck in the memory network. If not processed, the sound can trigger a client and eventually can become generalized to include loud noises that have nothing to do with gunshots. Now loud noises trigger clients into a trauma response where they might start shaking with fear. Clients may then react when hearing a gunshot on television, movies or even the crashing of a trash dumpster slamming shut.
With EMDR therapy, therapists help clients to desensitize the traumatic sound successfully using a technique of alternating eye movements, tapping, tones or music in the ears, and pulsars held in the hands. The process begins by using a sound of a gunshot found on the internet to expose the client to the same sound that is triggering to help the client access this painful memory. If clients struggle with their regulating their emotions, therapists can bring in allies to support the client through this process. These allies can be real or imaginary, just as long as they are protective and supportive and can represent a community that surrounds and makes it safe for the client to stay present while reprocessing the event. If the client becomes stuck on the same thought, belief or emotion repeatedly during a desensitization set, specific interweaves such as challenging the stuck belief, bringing more support or safety in with an ally, or using their own adult self to create more safety to get the reprocessing going again. Grounding tools can be helpful such as pillows or a weighted blanket to create more support and allow the client to tolerate sensations in the body.
Now let’s look at smell. The sense of smell is considered our oldest sense due to something called chemodetection — detecting chemicals related to smell or taste, it is considered the most ancient sense because every cell animal can detect the chemical composition of the environment. Smells are stored in the olfactory cortex part of the brain which is located along the ventral surface of the temporal lobe on the bottom side of the brain. The olfactory cortex is responsible for detecting the sensation of smell, airborne substances and is also known as the “nose brain”.
Let’s take a closer look where smell was traumatic for clients who experienced sexual abuse in their childhood. Clients have reported actually smelling the same smell of the perpetrator during EMDR therapy that they experienced during the abuse. When the smell becomes stuck during reprocessing, it can be helpful to use interweaves such as focusing on a different part of the image, or scanning for a body sensation, or bringing in an ally for support to help the client feel calmer so they can continue reprocessing. Eventually the smell will become reprocessed fully so that they no longer smell this smell when thinking of the preparator.
The sense of touch or physical sensations are also stored in the memory network. A client may have experienced violent touch to multiple parts of the body, which became stored and then stuck in the body. For example, during the processing of a sexual assault case, a client had a stuck/blocked sensation in his legs because he had been held down and beaten up. During session we walked around the room while desensitizing the memory and event, and he was able to release that blocked sensation in his body.
As EMDR therapists, we can also use the sense of taste as an interweave. During an EMDR session, I had a client with a phobia of getting a shot, and we used a piece of candy as a distraction which was soothing during his desensitization. He also visualized himself bringing the candy into a future trigger/situation, of getting a shot so that he could tolerate the sensation in the future. In addition, we brought in several allies such as his doctor, a nurse, and his mother, and he then imagined himself being cradled by each of these allies as he received a shot. This support changed his ability to handle the process of EMDR therapy in a gentler way.
The senses are powerful to the human emotional experience and they inform us of our world and the dangers in our world. However, these amazing senses can be get negatively blocked, when an individual has been traumatized. EMDR therapy can be a powerful way to help clients fully heal from a traumatic event so that they are no longer triggered by what they see, hear, smell, feel in their mind and bodies.