I’ve recently completed training in a new therapeutic modality that I’m excited to offer my clients: EMDR. I wanted to learn it because it’s been proven to be one of the most effective treatments for trauma, whether recent or from childhood, and it often works quickly, unlike traditional talk therapy. It also aligns with my belief that the mind-body knows how to heal itself, without drugs, if given time and the right conditions.
So what is EMDR? The initials stand for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, which doesn’t tell you much, other than there’s eye movement involved. It’s based on the Adaptive Information Processing Model, which assumes that all of our experience is stored in neural networks in the brain, called “memories.” Trauma causes disruption to the normal processing of experience, leading to traumatic memories being stored in unprocessed form, keeping them stuck in kind of a time capsule, instead of being integrated into the rest of our memories. When this happens, it can lead to symptoms like anxiety, phobias, depression and addiction, as well as a variety of health problems and difficulties with normal functioning in our lives.
EMDR works in a couple of ways: the eye movements seem to activate activity in different parts of the brain, not unlike the rapid eye movement (REM) phase of sleep, when we dream. This allows memory fragments stored in different locations to be released and integrated. Secondly, the EMDR therapist guides the client in simultaneously staying grounded in the present moment while recalling the traumatic event. This dual attention to past and present helps release what’s stuck, relieve the distress, and lay the memory to rest.
As part of the training, my therapist classmates and I practiced on each other, so I got to experience first-hand what EMDR can do to help relieve the distress of traumatic memories. In one case, I chose to focus on my earliest memory: lying in a hospital bed, alone, looking at the pattern that the sunlight streaming through the trees outside the window made on the hospital-green wall, and telling myself not to cry. I was not yet two years old.
I’d recalled this memory many years ago, when I was in therapy as a grad student, and my therapist and I had processed how I’d felt and what it meant, from an attachment-individuation perspective (e.g. I’d already learned that Mom and Dad weren’t always there, and that “good girls don’t cry”).
I didn’t think there was anything left to process, but turns out I was wrong: as I began the back-and-forth eye movements, suddenly I felt a strong sense of constriction in my chest, and it became harder to breathe. I reported that to my therapist, and was instructed to “go with that,” so I did. What came up over the next few minutes were more intense body sensations of chest constriction, a feeling of fear that I wouldn’t be able to breathe, and then the thought, “but it’s okay to cry, because this is scary.”
Which of course it was – not just scary to be in the hospital, and left all alone, but also because of why I was there. I had pneumonia! The EMDR process allowed me to access those long-stored body memories, just as if I was two years old again, yet because I was simultaneously present and grounded in my adult self, I was able to offer my child self some compassion, and gain a new perspective.
In another practice session, I chose a more recent event, and a “little t” trauma: being intentionally excluded from a family gathering. I pictured the worst part, which had been seeing a photo afterwards, with everyone smiling and raising a champagne glass, over the caption “To Rebecca.” When I’d seen that, it felt like I’d been kicked in the gut. I had told myself to forgive and let it go, but it still bothered me. So I decided to see what EMDR could do with that.
What happened was fascinating. Over the course of several minutes of back-and-forth eye movements, I felt a range of emotions: hurt, sadness, confusion, even a moment of rage. I had the thought, “I don’t belong,” followed by the thought, “but I do belong, here in this room, and in the world.” And the most interesting part: the image of the photo in my mind got blurry, faded, and grew smaller, until by the end of the session it was the size of a postage stamp. Now that’s how to let go of an unpleasant memory!
As I recall both of the original memories now, I can still picture what happened, and remember what I thought and felt at the time. But there’s no longer an emotional charge, no uncomfortable feeling in the gut, no distress whatsoever. My mind is just saying, “so that’s what happened.”
Another neat thing about EMDR is that it’s customized to the individual client’s needs. There are a variety of ways to do the eye movements, so each client can select one that’s comfortable for them. Therapy can proceed fairly quickly, or more gradually, depending on the client’s comfort. And best of all, the client doesn’t even need to describe the traumatic event in any detail to the therapist in order for the therapist to guide them through the reprocessing. This can allow trauma victims to heal without having to be re-traumatized by talking about what happened.
So if you’d like to learn more about EMDR, or are ready to start EMDR therapy, please contact me!
(Photo taken at the San Damiano Retreat Center, one of my favorite healing places.)
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