So about a year ago my mom came to me and told that I HAD to get trained in EMDR, she would even pay for me and my best friend to go. That was how important it was for her. She had a friend who went through abuse as a child and felt anxious a lot now, had tried lots of different talk therapies for years but nothing would rid her from that unsafe feeling she had carried with her since she was young, she went to 6 sessions of EMDR and she felt like weight was lifted; she felt free for the first time.
This definitely made me curious so I looked into what exactly EMDR is…
EMDR or Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing has been around for the last 25 years or so and researchers have found to have great success in working with people who have been through trauma like veterans and abuse victims. The basic idea is that when we go through something that is traumatic (or highly emotional), it is stored on the right side of the brain, the creative emotional side of our brain, but when we try to heal it later by going to talk therapy or just by writing about it or talking to our friends we are processing it on the left side of the brain, the side of the brain that is connected to language, lists, and logic. But if in fact we think about the event or feeling we are trying to heal while stimulating both the left and right side of the brain, our brain automatically knows how to heal traumatic memory just by giving it access to it.
You can stimulate the left and right sides by moving your eyes back and forth, alternating tapping your feet, walking or placing vibrating paddles in both hands which alternate vibrations. After reading the heaps of research to support this method, hearing other people recount experiences of how it helped them and attending a few EMDR sessions myself I was ready to give this training a shot. I mean who turns down a free training any way.
My friend Zoe and I went and like we always do whenever we are together, we laughed a lot. We found it hilarious that people could have powerful transformative experiences simply by sitting in a chair being asked to feel the feeling they were trying to work through and then the therapist would tap on their legs about 20x and ask them what was happening now. No matter what the answer was the therapist would say, “go with that,” and repeat the cycle. We watched video after video of people having this experience in every one the person would start with something they wanted to feel differently about and by then end of a 10-50 minute session the feelings would always change to something more adaptive and calming.
We found this so funny because we thought can that really happen?! We spent all these years talking to people as therapists and put all this effort into helping our clients change their mindset, whereas the modality of EMDR was saying all that needed to happen was let people feel the feeling and stimulate both sides of their brain???!!!
Plus come on were these people just brainwashed into thinking this worked and that’s why it actually worked?
Well in between the times when we were watching videos and listening to lectures we were practicing EMDR on each other, and we both couldn’t deny that we noticed small shifts. Like I felt some anxiety lift about expressing myself perfectly that I had been carrying with me. But the shifts were small which still allowed part of me to doubt this whole EMDR thing.
But the deeper we got into the training the deeper we were trained to go with each other, and on the last 2 days of the training something magical happened…
First of all I went through a home invasion when I was 12 years old and even though as a 35 year old I would not have told you this event was affecting me in huge ways I did still see lasting effects. I would become more hyper vigilant about danger in the fall because that is the time of year when it happened; I liked to sleep further from the doorway in hotel rooms because it made me feel safer; I didn’t like being in the pitch black dark, nor would I every consider wearing ear plugs or a mask when I sleep.
I decided to process this event at the training because I was more curious than anything what would happen. Mind you we are in a room with 20 other couples who are processing too. My friend asks me to bring up the image of the home invasion (we have to bring up the memory because at this point I can’t feel any feelings around the event) and then she starts tapping on my legs stopping every 30 seconds to ask what’s happening. Well about 2 minutes into this experience I have total access to the feelings I felt that night, I am so scared I almost want to stop processing because it feels so overwhelming, but I keep going, next I see an image of myself in my bedroom in bed starring at the doorway. I am hallucinating a man standing in the doorway even though no one is there (I forgot that I had this image for years after the attack, and would run down the hall as fast as I could to sleep in my parents’ room).
The next image is of a tree in the fall with all the leaves falling off of it, accompanied with the feeling I felt every fall of vigilance and anxiety.
The next image is of me cutting myself, as a teen 3 years after this event occurred I started cutting myself, I never connected my cutting to the PTSD from the attack because there were a lot of things that felt overwhelming in my life at that time, but in this process it feels so clear that at least part of the cutting was about distracting from the overwhelming fear of not being safe after that event occurred.
The next image is of me crawling into someone’s arms and feeling safe from harm in that moment
And the visions keep going and as they do my terror turns to calm and I feel like my brain is literally releasing some of the fear that I have carried around all these years.
When we are finished processing I am completely calm and have a huge craving for ice cream- my mom always took me for ice cream after I went through something challenging.
The next day (which is our last day) I am so in awe of the experience I had I want to do more, I want to know was that just a fluke or can I really have access to healing myself consistently by just sitting with someone and doing this process…
I chose to work on something completely different for variety sake. I have this feeling when I am out in the world sometimes that I do not want to look strangers in the eye. Again it does not affect me negatively in big ways but this resistant feeling appears sometimes and I am curious what it is about.
We begin…I get nothing, I can feel a slight feeling in my chest of anxiousness but it is slight we keep going… and about 5 minutes into it I get an image of feeling, safe, happy, free and completely myself while I am alone at the beach.
The next image that comes up is me at a Christmas party my family used to throw when I was growing up, I am about 10 years old and I feel confident and strong, I am taking care of all the kids at the party- leading them in games, making sure they all feel included.
Next I have the thought I cannot be connected to other people unless I am feeling confident and strong, if I am not perfect, I will be by myself.
I then feel intense hopelessness and worthlessness, it is so surprising because in my conscious life this is not how I feel now, it is how I felt in my teens and early 20’s but it has been a long time since I felt this.
I feel like there is no way I am going to ever transition from this place in this session…
It just keeps becoming clearer and clearer through more images and thoughts that there all these different parts of me the alone and happy part, the shy and scared part of me around others, the confident leader around others, the alone and lonely part, etc. and that I will never be able to integrate them all, and now my friend watching me becoming more and more hopeless and anxious asks me if I can remember a time when I felt imperfect AND connected to someone else, and even though I could have told her many examples of feeling that in my life now just 30 minutes ago I now no longer have access to feeling that.
My left brain knows I will not feel like this forever and probably not in a couple hours, but my emotional self feels lost in a vortex of pain.
All of a sudden we do another round of processing and I have an image of my soul it is glowing and blue and in the shape of a gingerbread man, and floating behind it are at least 20 other glowing ginger bread men which represent all the different parts of me and in a flash they all integrate into my soul at the front and as they do, the anxiety and hopelessness in my chest instantaneously change to excitement, hope, centeredness. I feel so good that I am laughing and my friend nor I can believe how quickly everything changed.
It literally felt like a part of me was healed
In the next few days I feel open and vulnerable. I have images of pain from my childhood, but relatively quickly as those images come so does a release of emotion that I was carrying with me from that time…And 3 days later I feel centered, confident, accepting of myself, free from worry about how others will perceive me. I would have told you before this experience that I could not really imagine my life any better than it was…I love my job, my partner, my friends, and me, but after this experience it feels like a whole new level of calm was accessed and I am so grateful for that.
I am an EMDR believer and am excited already to see what is happening for my clients.
My only caveat is EMDR is amazing but it is 1 tool in a box full of many tools to reach happiness and fulfillment. I believe that part of the reason my experience was so powerful and fast was all the years of work on myself I had done before this. Talk therapy, meditation, coaching, eating healthy, exercising, creating meaningful relationships, having a job I love, all these things set me up for a break through. So go out there use EMDR as a starting point, an ending point or a stop on the journey but do not see it as “the answer” it is one piece to a big puzzle that we all have our whole lives to unlock.