EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) is a relatively new method used to treat trauma. It is important that EMDR only be performed by a licensed clinician who is specifically trained in the method. Preferably, a therapist with whom you have a good rapport and who you already trust.
I had been seeing my therapist for around 6 months when she suggested that we use EMDR to reduce my reactivation related to specific events from my past and certain beliefs that I held about myself and my ability to manage stress. By this point, I had shared most of my memories of childhood abuse and neglect and both of us had a very good understanding of how these events effected my daily life. I was triggered by being alone, other people’s anger, any form of sexual violence shown on television or in movies, and the threat of scarcity of food or other necessary supplies.
1. I Held the Power- My therapist would identify a thought or memory that she thought we should work and always allowed me to veto if it was too difficult for me. The thought or memory should be powerful, one that you find interrupts your daily life and intrudes your thoughts repeatedly. An example of an intrusive thought might be “we are going to run out of food and I will have to scavenge for things to eat”, or “if someone gets mad at me, they are going to hurt me”, or “I can not calm myself down once I get upset”. An example of a disturbing memory could include specific instances of abuse, neglect, manipulation, abandonment, etc.
2. Bilateral Stimulation- There are several ways to do EMDR; all of which involve bilateral stimulation. The stimulation can be tactile, visual, or auditory and it occurs in a rhythmic pattern of left, right, left, right, left, right. If you choose tactile, your therapist can tap your legs or arms back and forth or he or she may have a device that you can hold in each hand that will vibrate, alternating sides. If you choose visual, you can watch your therapist’s hand wave back and forth or a light blinking on each side. Auditory stimulation can occur with headphones that alternate a beep on each side or your therapist might ask you to close your eyes and snap on either side of your body. I chose auditory and preferred my therapist to snap for me.
3. What Happens- What I noticed during EMDR is that the belief or memory that we were working on lost its power after a few minutes of bilateral stimulation. As an example, I was very reactivated by people leaving the room during an argument. As a child I was often enclosed in my room for long periods of time after a disagreement, sometimes all day and all night. I was too young to understand what was happening and the neglect was never resolved for me. I was never able to have a productive conversation with my parents about it so it became traumatic for me. Trauma means unresolved, it means the event stays in the brain and brings itself up over and over again because you have not dealt with it and reduced its power. With EMDR, I was able to reduce the power of the memories and beliefs. Now instead of having flashbacks and fearing annihilation when someone left the room during a disagreement, I could stay calm enough to implement a secondary coping skill to calm myself down enough to stay in my body. (I chose to keep a card in my purse that reminded me of the current year, my current age, and that I was an adult and nobody was going to lock me in a room and forget about me).
4. How It Works- EMDR helps because eye movement or other bilateral stimulation is a natural release of endorphins that calm you down very quickly. EMDR has a distancing effect, meaning that after doing EMDR on a specific memory or belief, the event seems further away from you and has less power over you. It in no way takes away the memory or changes how horrible it was. I can still remember every incident of abuse and neglect that I could before the EMDR. I also know that it was still as wrong and destructive to me as I did before the EMDR. The difference is that the experience is now more integrated into my brain and I feel that it is somewhat resolved. It is impossible for me to resolve the issue with my abusers. They are not healthy enough to have a meaningful conversation about it and the damage has already been done. But it is possible to decrease the level of reactivation that the memory can trigger in me. Once the reactivation is decreased, it is possible to use other coping skills to come back to the present moment and not feel controlled by the past.
5. It Is Safe- EMDR is a well researched and safe addition to therapy that can help you distance yourself from traumatic memories and unhealthy beliefs. It has helped millions of people take a step away from their past and function better in the present. Confronting traumatic memories and reprogramming core beliefs that we have held for a long time is a daunting task. It should be done in the presence of a trusted professional who has extensive experience in trauma and EMDR.