You’re struggling; you’ve found yourself in survival mode (or maybe you have always been here) wrestling with the effects of a traumatic event or a series of traumatic experiences and you need a reprieve. You turn to the internet for information and boy is it plentiful, isn’t it?
You will find yourself in a sea of self-care tips and tricks, breathing techniques, forms of therapy, and ways to keep and maintain a journal.
In my case, I narrowed down and found myself at a local agency that specifically helped children and adult survivors of abuse, sexual or physical. Through the counselor there, I was recommended to EMDR therapy for the extensive traumas that I needed to process in order to address my mental illness.
Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing, it seems to be what everyone is talking about nowadays when it comes to PTSD and trauma recovery.
There is plenty of information out there to tell you about the founder Francine Shapiro, about how she discovered this form of bilateral eye movement mimicking REM sleep which helps to relieve heighten emotional disturbance. There is also an abundance of articles that give you the statistical success rates of EMDR therapy in patients with PTSD.
But what does it mean for you – the trauma survivor, as you go through the process one day at a time, in each therapy session? That’s what I am here to tell you about in this series. Not just the process, but the obstacles as well as the benefits that are taken for granted.
But first … let us begin with the basics of why EMDR therapy helps with trauma recovery.
How Trauma Stores in the Brain
It has been said that abuse victims don’t sleep well due to heightened levels of stress hormones that can cause sleep interruptions like nightmares, anxiety, and sleepwalking. REM sleep is an integral part of processing the day’s events and emotions, as well as for brain growth and regeneration.
All emotions are felt and processed through the limbic system of the brain, the epicenter of emotional and hormonal processing and production – and this is where trauma experiences become “stuck”, and thus unprocessed, and unrelenting. It is why trauma survivors feel such somatic symptoms when triggered.
Our experiences fall into what I’ll call “channels” in the brain, based on the emotions they evoke in us. Any and all experiences that relate to or bring about a certain emotion get stuck in that particular channel and can trigger an emotional response in you at any time, always and forever, if not processed properly.
Fast forward through life; a survivor may experience heighten, even uncontrollable emotions when present-day situations spark feelings that are linked to their abuse or trauma pinging a channel of unprocessed traumatic emotions in the limbic system.
I have a few channels in my brain: “I’m not good enough”. “I’m not lovable”, “I am unworthy”, “I am not safe in my own body” all conditioned into my perceptions of self and the world, through a childhood of fear and abuse. Any time a real-life situation (having no relation to my trauma) causes me to feel emotions from one of these channels – all PTSD hell can potentially break loose.
EMDR creates focused and waking REM sleep eye movement that helps process these feelings and thoughts that have been stuck within the emotional center of the brain.
There are a couple techniques used to cause the bilateral eye movement; your counselor may use their fingers, moving them quickly in front of your face as you follow them with your eyes, or your counselor may use electronic hand paddles that vibrate in your hand as you sit with your eyes closed.
I prefer the method that uses the vibrating hand-held paddles due to how I need to focus my mind during sessions because it allows me to close my eyes and relax better. My therapist also says it allows her to create a faster stimulating movement for reprocessing than moving her hands alone. (I use the word paddle, but they are small and fit easily into the palm of your hand.)
There is also a light bar that can be used which flashes a digital dot back and forth along a bar, similar to a scrolling marquee. The counselor I see at the local agency uses one of these, and if you watch primetime drama, many cop dramas use the light bar as a prop.
There are “eight phases” to an EMDR therapy session. Understanding the phases and what they mean for you in only part of it, you also need to understand that these eight phases repeat nearly every session you use EMDR techniques, and they also change often depending on the layers and complexity of the trauma you are healing from.
You don’t go through the eight phases and you’re done, you will cycle through them over and over again.
Phase one is the introduction. It is the story sharing, the getting to know your therapist and vice versa. It entails all the startup therapy stuff: identifying issues to address, writing up a treatment plan, setting goals, assessing your current mental health status, discussing approaches and providing resources and information. This phase is fluid and constantly being revised as you dig into and face up to the experiences you have had. It will also come in handy as you navigate real-time situations in your life that become difficult while you revisit and process your traumas.
Phase two focuses on learning to cope with the emotions that will arise through the therapy treatment. A safe place is established mentally as well as within the space of your session so there is a place for you to ground yourself through treatment when things get intense. Creating your mental safe space may use EMDR for installment, your counselor will use slow eye movements while having you focus on an image that brings you a sense of calm. The hope is that this image will remain a safe and accessible place for you to mentally bring forward during a therapy session if needed and when flashbacks, anxiety, or intrusive thoughts interrupt your daily living.
Phase three-six all go together and all happen within one session of therapy. This is the part where you identify an emotional memory and the negative feeling about yourself it causes. You’ll be asked to think of an image that relates, and you’ll be asked to gauge the level of disturbance on a scale of 1-10.
At this time you will also determine the positive thought you want to reprocess and “install” including a measure of your level of belief in that statement.
Example: a fight with my son triggered deep-seated feelings I have about not being good enough. The image in my mind during the EMDR session was his empty room. The positive thought I wanted to achieve as I processed the intense emotions around his behavior towards me, was the belief that I am, in fact, good enough. I rated how intense the emotional stress was as we began as well as my belief that I am good enough. As we went through the eye movement session I was asked to continually rate the levels of my emotions with the end goal of decreasing disturbance levels to zero and belief in self up to ten.
Phase seven is called closure and it relatively self-explanatory. This is the part where your therapist will bring you back to the present, and help you address any residual disturbance before you leave the counseling session. You might go over some self-care or coping techniques, and you’ll be encouraged to journal in between sessions as your brain continues to process.
Phase eight is the re-evaluation (or debrief) – you’re back after a week and it is time to assess how upsetting the issues from the previous session are now. You will go over your journaling of the time in between and determine if the emotional disruption has been processed, needs to be continually addressed, or if it has drawn to light additional issues to focus on.
And so, the process continues. Phase 1-8, over and over and over, with no expectations, until you reach a point of remission in PTSD symptoms.
. . . . .
Sounds pretty forthright, doesn’t it? Well, as I have discovered over the last two years – it isn’t. There is so much more to EMDR therapy behind the scenes for survivors dealing with complex trauma and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
No one talks about how all of our emotions past and present are linked, or about the images that flash in your head during the eye movement sessions. No one talks about dissociation during a therapy session or the way the brain continues to process after you leave your counselor’s office which can result in nightmares, flashbacks, and anxiety.
No one talks about any of the obstacles and struggles a survivor may experience in EMDR therapy. So I will.
EMDR has been life-saving for me, I have been using this form of therapy, in addition, to talk therapy for almost two years. It has been an amazing tool in my recovery tool chest, helping me develop new awarenesses, and it has softened the edges of some extremely painful emotions. Still, there has been a learning curve, and while I understand that everyone will have their own unique experience – some things really are part of the party bag that PTSD brings to the table.
I have high hopes as the years continue and my commitment to therapy persists that I will work my way through the many layers of trauma affecting me and find a wholeness I have never known before.
Check out part two and three of this series EMDR Therapy & PTSD: What to Expect During Treatment and EMDR Therapy & PTSD: The Benefits.
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