What is EMDR?
EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization & Reprocessing.
It’s a relatively new psychotherapeutic approach to undoing the impact of trauma.
What’s involved is an organic and interactive process between client and counsellor whereby maladaptive neural networks are altered through connecting traumatic memory with neutral or even positive information.
The concept is simple. Identify a trigger and then use eye movement techniques to desensitize and reprocess your experience of trauma.
Is this for real? Yes, and this is why guidance by a trained professional is crucial to the process. You do not want to dive into traumatic memories without someone there as a guide.
According to Healthline, multiple independent and controlled studies have shown that EMDR therapy is an effective treatment for Post Traumatic Stress Disortder (PTSD). It’s even one of the Department of Veterans Affairs’ strongly recommended options to treat PTSD. However, you do not need a diagnosis of PTSD to get EMDR therapy.
The week before my first session
I feel like I’m about to undergo surgery.
I have a general idea of what to expect, but I am mostly incorrect. I think the session will center around my eye movement. I have the impression the only way to do EMDR is by following your therapist’s hand as it moves from side to side in front of your face like a hypnosis of sorts.
I am worried I will not be able to follow her hand with my eyes, so I start practicing. Little do I know, my therapist will be using a tapping technique instead. I talk, she taps on my knees.
How many memories will we cover? And what will be the impact? How will I feel afterwards? Is this legit?
I avoid Google, fully understanding if I search EMDR, my experience will be influenced. I want to do this with as little interference as possible. I want to be the object to fix not the subject who fixes. Fix me. I have tried and it has led me here.
Will I be an emotional mess afterward?
Will driving be dangerous?
I do not know.
Because of my conscious attempt to stay as ignorant as possible about EMDR for as long as possible, I didn't know we will begin with what’s labelled as level 2-3 traumas. We will not dive into the darkest depths of my psyche on our first appointment. We will start somewhere safer, closer to the surface of accessible memories.
“It’s the kind of memory where if we were to talk about it, and we have to abruptly end our session, you could safely exit my office,” says my counsellor.
In my world, trauma has never existed on a scale.
If it brings pain, it is categorized as painful, and filed into a locked box of other painful memories. Any sting of the past is numbed as I detach (dissociate) from myself. This is how I learned to survive encounters in which I knew I was helpless. This is how I carry my trauma—in a locked box where it cannot hurt.
I am about to learn how very misinformed I have been.
My way of looking at trauma has been informed by the point system as set forth by ACEs.
ACEs stands for Adverse Childhood Experiences and the mental health community uses them as an indication of risk factors. The more points you have before the age of 18, the higher the risk for mental and physical health issues, substance use and abuse, incarceration, and not to mention the lower likelihood of emotional or material success.
ACEs are grouped by abuse, neglect, and household dysfunction. They serve as a guidance rather than a written rule.
To be blunt, the more points you are assigned in childhood, the more adversity you’re predicted to face as an adult.
The problem is, ACEs doesn’t take into account positive experiences, the scale on which trauma lives, or the possibility of rewiring and reshaping those predictions.
What happens during the first session
I’m sitting in a grey-blue office chair. My counsellor is standing more than 6 feet away at a whiteboard with a dry-erase pen ready in hand.
I’m listing memories associated with a single limiting belief I’ve been able to identify. Well, I’ve identified many limiting beliefs that have been implanted into my neural network over the years, but it’s protocol to begin with one.
For example, common limiting beliefs include, “I am not good enough. I am not safe. I am not loved.” Each belief lives on a different network that needs desensitization and reprocessing. This is the space to work within.
The space is triangular like a pyramid. It’s a pyramid of moments where you remember feeling that limiting belief. I’m given the choice between beginning at the top with most recent memories and working backwards or doing the inverse. Slowly, I create a pyramid of events - memories - triggers - on a chronological scale.
For example, growing up in a household with an active addict creates a chronic state of stress on a child, but for EMDR, it’s important to identify a few or even a single memory where this was felt.
Details are not necessary, which is something I didn’t know in advance. It was a relief to hear my therapist only needed keywords that would later jog my memory - not hers. This way people can process their traumas even when they cannot speak about them.
Your counsellor does not need to know what happened in order to help your body heal.
But in this session I can’t help but wonder if it’s obvious.
The night in the car with. The grad party. The accident.
These fragments could mean anything. It doesn’t matter what she knows. I do not need her to verbally validate my trauma as trauma anymore.
The reality of starting EMDR treatment is that, a) trauma exists, and b) it lives in the neural network expressing itself in maladaptive ways. It is a problem. It breeds more of the same. The pyramid builds on itself. This is why destabilizing one memory or trigger can have a positive effect on the rest of the limiting belief pyramid.
Next, she asks me to choose one event that ranks about a 2-3 on a scale of 1-10.
10 = the most distressing
01 = the least distressing, almost neutral
The point is to begin by reprocessing certain psychologically “smaller” or less weighty traumas or triggers. Doing so not only begins to shift your processing of memories into a healthier perspective, it also begins to detangle the rest of the pyramid.
Picture it like this: The connecting thread of your limiting belief is (ideally) pulled out from a memory and reprocessed. In a textbook world, for example, this would sound like you coming to the understanding on your own that you were indeed safe when you didn’t feel safe.
However, this is real life, and in the above example, there are going to be times where this is just an outright lie. Personally, I was not safe in the situations that are listed in my pyramid centering around limiting - or perhaps ‘impairing’ is a better word - beliefs about personal safety.
When we got to this spot in the session, it created a roadblock.
But EMDR has a plan for when this inevitably happens.
If you cannot accept a different truth while the desensitization and reprocessing is happening, then the process pauses.
In this case, my counsellor asks me to envision what I wish were true. This provides a small window back into the memory and a place to move forward from and toward healing.
As she taps on my knees, I feel the corresponding side of my brain light up. There is a tingling sensation on the scalp. I’m awake and present.
“I wish I was safe,” morphs into, “I wish I wasn’t in this situation,” morphs into, “I wish I had acted differently,” morphs into remembering actions I’d forgotten I’d taken and acknowledging my age as a valid reason why I was not to blame.
Gentle tears are naturally streaming from my face and I exhale.
What has happened here is not the same as a counsellor, parent, or peer telling you the exact same thing. I came to this conclusion, giving my past self what she needed by going through the EMDR process.
Benefits of EMDR as visualized by Trillium Counselling
Leaving my first session
My mind is not blank nor is it busy. It just is.
“Does anyone ever feel anger after EMDR?” I ask.
Apparently it’s not commonly reported, but also not unexpected, says my counsellor.
“Why, are you experiencing anger at the moment?”
I’m fixated on the whiteboard filled with chronological keywords. Jammed. Name after name. Memory after memory.
Did I ever feel safe?
“I’m looking at that name and wondering where their accountability is...” I say, taking a deep breath in.
“All the names,” I say, exhaling.
I’ve sweat through my shirt and cried on my leggings.
I’ve often pondered about the productivity in revisiting the past, and I can agree there are better uses of time.
But reprocessing is different from revisiting.
No one doing EMDR is sitting around in their therapist’s office dwelling. Sulking. Moping. Blaming.
Crying? Healing? Sweating? Yes.
During my first session (50 minutes), I did not work through my chosen limiting belief. This will be what happens next - a continuation of work on the same neural network.
I have identified at least 6 limiting beliefs that, really, would be amazing to rework. I have a handful of events that come to mind with each, and I’m sure there’s a lot left to be uncovered.
The potential of what I can experience and accomplish if certain traumas can be addressed and desensitized and reprocessed is limitless.
Looking at that whiteboard can be crippling or motivational or maybe for now it is both. I have to stay aligned with this so as to give myself the chances that have always been mine, but have been buried or denied.
Where I am now: The day after EMDR, I felt mentally and emotionally scrambled. Physically tired, emotionally spent.
I forgot common words and questions asked more than once. This is normal.
This is an EMDR hangover.
A friend tells me this is an important time for self-reflection - this hangover period. I rest. I read. I recuperate.
Overall, I felt an increase in self-confidence after my session. I felt like I was taking charge of living memories that have been behind the scenes holding me back. Knowing there is a tool available to redo some of what has been done makes me feel powerful. The story is still unwritten. Relax the shoulders. Exhale.
I book another session but this time combine two slots into one to dive deeper than before. P.S. Throughout this piece, I have struggled with whether or not to mention the cost of this treatment. Prices will vary widely between professionals and may or may not be covered by insurance you may or may not have. In my case, it is 140 CAD dollars per 50 minute block and I do not have insurance to cover it. I do not know many sessions I will be able to do, but I’m doing what I can with what I have.
This is something we have to remember when we talk about healing and health - there is a material cost associated that can provide a real barrier to many. It is not enough to “want” to do the work or to even be able to do the work, you need to be able to afford the work, too. Thoughts? Leave a comment!