A traumatic event is anything that is outside the range of normal experiences.  Traumatic experiences may involve a threat to life or safety, but any situation that overwhelms all of the senses is a traumatic experience.  It’s not a so much a matter of what happened – it is more about how a person experiences the event internally.  The more frightened and helpless they feel the more likely they are to experience brain changes from the event.

Traumatic events can be one-time events such as a car accident, a violent attack, a severe injury, a natural disaster, witnessing a sudden death of someone close to you, or experiencing a major surgical procedure.  They can also be ongoing events such as chronic sexual abuse or domestic violence, battling a life-threatening illness, or combat.


A traumatic experience disrupts the entire nervous system and engages the lower non-verbal parts of our brain.  Instinct takes over and hormones are released to help us react.  When this happens the memory of the event is not stored in the conscious reasoning part of the brain.  Instead the memory remains “stuck” locked in the lower subcortical regions of the brain.  The memory takes on a frozen quality and causes the person to relive the experience again and again.  These “flashbacks” can be triggered by a smell, sounds, or anything that was associated with the original event.


Trauma researchers have looked inside the brains of people who have suffered serious emotional trauma. When asked about the trauma, the scans showed that the right hemisphere which is associated with emotional states and arousal lit up while the left frontal cortex which is the verbal and logical “thinking” part of the brain was shut down.  This separation leads to nightmares and flashbacks produced by the right hemisphere, and an inability to talk about the event because the left hemisphere is detached from it.  Usually our body, emotions, and thoughts are all connected.  Trauma separates these from one another.


To begin to heal the brain and decrease the symptoms, treatment must involve both hemispheres of the brain.  Psychotherapy alone can take years to make a difference. EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) is a scientifically researched treatment that combines psychotherapy (left hemisphere) with a process similar to REM sleep (right hemisphere) to “unlock” the memory.  A therapist specially trained in EMDR guides a person through talking about the trauma while using the person’s own rapid, rhythmic eye movements to re-process the experience and weaken the effect of negative emotions.  EMDR therapy has shown that the mind can in fact heal from psychological trauma much as the body recovers from physical trauma. EMDR is currently being used for severe anxiety disorders as well.


At Ascendant Clinics we have therapists trained and experienced in EMDR  with many clients finding success in their treatment with this proven therapy.  

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Susan Mitchell

Susan Mitchell is a licensed clinical social worker and is clinical director at Ascendant Behavioral Health, located in Lehi. She can be reached at smitchell@ascendantclinics.com or 801-502-3913.