May is Mental Health Awareness Month. This week, we are going to talk about specific training and treatment that can help improve vagal tone.
We often use Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, or EMDR, with our athletes. Many of them have told me it really works for them. It certainly helped me let go of trauma related to serious accidents I experienced.
But the title does not make its purpose apparent. Let’s make it apparent — which is the most important part of a dad joke — its a parent.
EMDR as a method to drain your nervous system.
Early on, eye movements were central to its use. The movement of eyes back and forth is called bilateral stimulation. Bilateral sounds and a tactile method have been developed, too. The sound and vibrations alternate between ears and hands.
The research is strong. It is viewed as a gold standard treatment for PTSD. Functional MRIs confirm that it changes a person’s brain.
Here’s how it works.
Remember that the two sides of the brain have to be able to talk to each other. The alternating sounds or vibrations from EMDR ensure they are talking.
The first phase is brain strength training. The tappers or music are on, and the athlete holds them or listens. We create resources by guiding them through visualization and mental imagery, like the OPZ, great coaches, happy places and a container for hard stuff. The vibration or sound uses Hebb’s principle to improve communication between thinking and feeling, because it involves more neurons.
The second phase is to take out a time that your brain and body won’t let go of. That could be an injury, a poor performance or a stressful family or life event. It could also be a bad experience with a teacher, coach, teammate or a parent.
The athlete visualizes the upsetting experience while holding the tappers or listening. The result is that both sides of the brain stay online while visualizing. Your thinking brain helps the feeling brain make sense of the situation.
It helped me get control and stop having flashbacks from a car accident I had at 19, and a bike accident I had five years ago. But EMDR isn’t just for huge events. It can even help with subtle and performance-interfering thoughts.
Many of my college and professional athletes say it makes them less reactive to similar stressors, and stress in general. It helps you clear your container and give your brain more capacity to manage stress.
You are less likely to fall into a flight or fight freeze reaction. That improves vagal tone, which means better sleep, less anxiety and stronger immune responses. You run your brain instead of it running you.
I will caution you — you should not do EMDR without professional guidance. It’s a powerful tool that works best in conjunction with a professional relationship.
Watch this private youtube video of a coaches clinic I did in 2020.
You can also learn more about it in this article from Experience Life.
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