EMDR Therapy for Childhood Trauma
Updated: Mar 15
CW: This post may be distressing to persons with lived experiences of childhood traumatic experiences.
EMDR stands for eye movement desensitization and reprocessing. It is a tool trained therapists use to help their clients access and desensitize traumatic memory and its impact.
With EMDR, you don't need to give all the details- or even know all the details- of a traumatic experience to begin healing. I say "healing" very intentionally because traumatic events cause injury (not disorder). Injuries can be healed with the help of EMDR.
"It is like magic," I say to my counsellor after reporting back from our first session.
But that was quite some time ago.
Now, I've just come out of a recovery period from my last session—the session I had been working up to for three years.
It is still like magic.
According to the Cleveland Clinic, when someone undergoes EMDR, they can access memories of a traumatic event in very specific ways:
"Combined with eye movements and guided instructions, accessing those memories helps you reprocess what you remember from the negative event. That reprocessing helps “repair” the mental injury from that memory."
What to Expect from EMDR
There are some general things you can expect from EMDR. You can expect your therapist to offer you options. EMDR is all about options.
My options began with two different lists. I created these lists in 2020 or 2021.
List A - The Chronology of My Traumatic Memories
List B- The Beliefs that Keep Me Stuck in Survival Mode
Notes about List A - The Chronology of My Traumatic Memory
When you look back into your childhood, what do you see?
For people with complex post traumatic stress, looking back may prove to be quite a dark tunnel of little- to- no stream of memories. Looking back can also be a series of flashbacks from traumatic event to traumatic event and can skip around from scene-to-scene or age-to-age.
Traumatic events can be clear but are more often than not quite blurry, confusing, not quite right, or just "off" enough to give you the feeling that something really terrible happened, was happening, or has been repressed.
Got guilt? Yeah, me too.
As a note, because I STILL struggle with this, you being afraid of getting it wrong, blaming someone who shouldn't be blamed, or making something up (ie., lying about trauma) is a sign of early childhood trauma (and grooming tbh).
It's complicated to discuss, because guilt and shame is wrapped up in all this, but the bottom line is it's time to believe yourself. You do know the truth-even if you can't clearly put it into words. Questioning it is a sign someone else has already intervened and convinced you: nothing happened; you're a liar; you're manipulative; you aren't trustworthy, etc. etc. etc.
And if you're worried that you're harbouring ill vibes toward someone else from your past unjustly, know this:
The way childhood trauma works is that it's MUCH MORE likely trauma occurred and your brain buried it never to be seen again. You may also have this feeling something bad happened or you can't stop returning to memories that don't make sense from your childhood. There is a reason it's cloudy and confusing and that the memory doesn't make sense- that is your brain protecting you.
EMDR taught me that it's less about what actually happened and more about how it impacts your life now. Anxiety, depression, and personality "disorders" are all examples of responses to trauma...just fYI.
Back to making trauma-informed lists for EMDR
In the chronological list, you'll be asked to sit with yourself and list out any memory (small or big) that sticks out like a sharp shard in your memory. These are the memories or nostalgias that tighten your shoulders, quicken your heart rate, make you sweat, make you lose sleep to worry or nightmare, or that send you into full on flight-fight-freeze-fawn mode.
You do not need to have an exact understanding of what these memories ARE or what they MEAN. It's horrifically common, for example, for memories of traumatic childhood experiences to feel like dreams that may involve aliens or shadow people or figures of the unknown. This is the childmind protecting itself.
You can put together the list by way of years (first memory to last) but that may prove more challenging than you'd assume going in and ultimately, it's less about getting the timeline "right" and more about finding safer places to use as starting points because working up to the bigger T traumas.
You can also make your list based on your feelings about the impact of the memory. You can list from smallest impact to largest or more simply from what hurt to what hurts the most. You do not need to go into details with an EMDR provider about what happened in each memory. You do not need to know for certain what happened- oftentimes that's the gift you will eventually get from EMDR...
For now, uou can label the memory in a way for you to know what you're talking about and for it to be private. Cool, eh? Examples include things like: that Tuesday; grad party; the breakup; police.
Notes about List B - The Beliefs that Keep Me Stuck in Survival Mode
I can't remember if my therapist requested I create both lists or if I did it to see which felt most appropriate to work with. Nevertheless, I'd recommend trying this one, too. It took a bit of prompting for me to figure out which beliefs were keeping me stuck in survival mode (and then to connect these beliefs back to the first time I ever remember feeling that way from the chronological list).
Big beliefs I carry
After a lot of brainstorming, it was clear my biggest beliefs I adopted from the traumatic experiences were the following:
I am not safe
I am alone
I am not worthy of love as I am
I'm sharing what seems like intensely personal information because it's actually not. Feeling unsafe, alone in the world, and not worthy of unconditional love are particularly common beliefs that bring people seeking support into EMDR. In other words, I'm not unique in this, although the experiences that brought me to those conclusions are.
These beliefs can be entry points.
Example: My last session dealt with a traumatic yet blurry and unsettling memory that led me to understand I was indeed not safe. No one is trying to deny my reality of that or tell me to think otherwise. Instead, we access the belief by entering the blurry memory and trying to turn down that belief by turning up another.
Examples of beliefs I've been able to shift from split thinking either/or to, "Yes, that is true, AND..."
I am alone, and I have the comfort of the three pine trees and cat, and my adult self can speak to the alone little version of myself.
I am not safe, but I am surviving this.
I am not safe, but this is temporary.
In this, we (little me and current me) find space to make a new memory to create and we come back to ourselves after being split from the self during traumatic experience. You know that looking at the scene from above thing? It's a sign you left your physical body (dissociated) due to extreme fear. Meeting yourself in those moments doesn't work for me everytime and this will not be the way forward for everyone. I never expected my current self to return to help my younger self in those moments. I became who I needed. There is sadness, grief, pain, and POWER in this.
Important note on EMDR goals
EMDR is not trying to rewrite history or tell you what happened wasn't that bad. It is acknowledging the impact of any traumatic memory (big or small) and it is opening space for finding some solution (turning down the pain of the memory by becoming empowered in previously disempowering situations or turning down the impact by increasing a new perspective from your current mind).
Personal thoughts from EMDR sessions
Here are a few notes on the above from my personal experience.
EMDR doesn't always have to include "eye movement." Instead, it can work just as effectively with tapping patterns conducted by your therapist on your knees. Every person will feel differently about what is most comfortable. For me, I go with the knee tapping because the eye movement exercise makes me feel physically ill. During the knee tapping, my eyes are closed.
The guided instructions are very gentle. Your therapist should be just that: the guide. Remember you are the one making the decisions and choices in these spaces and places in your mind. You can expect questions like, "What sensations are coming up for you right now?" and "What do you want to do with that?" and "Do you feel comfortable if we go back to the starting point," and "What do you want to say to that person now / Where do you want to go now?"
Expectations are hard to control, but they have no place here. The best EMDR session I had was the one I was actually entirely open to exploring inside the scene and speaking out and moving my body during the session. This took literal years of developing enough comfort and trust with my counsellor. Still, I struggle at times with trying to, well, excise the memory or rewrite history as I wish it had happened...the brain doesn't exactly let that happen though. Some sessions have been more stressful than others as I found the logical conclusions my brain wanted to come to didn't work for my unconscious mind.
EMDR continues working after your session. This can be distressing but it signals your brain is processing and reprocessing and healing. It looks different for everyone and every time. For example, you may go back into regular life and think little of the session only to remember something crystal clear or have a name or a clue or another memory popup hours or days later.
EMDR can be felt in your brain. I didn't expect this! You will feel your brain working as the right and left side are stimulated by the eye movement pattern or tapping pattern. It's like fireflies fluttering around lighting things up and burning out and lighting them up again. If you're like me, you may also feel cold, hot, tingling, tightness, water flooding, blood draining, shaking, and sweating.
EMDR is holistically empowering but also draining, and it can impact your current relationships for better or worse. It can be confusing coming out of a session feeling negative feelings for someone you love that you likely weren't allowed to process before due to whatever reason. For people with childhood trauma, we've often been raised to feel overly empathetic toward abusers and bystanders, making untangling from these cycles still difficult even after trauma healing work. In other words, EMDR will help you with the memory stuff and the painful stuff and the limiting beliefs but it won't change the people who may have played roles (even sideline roles).
The pressure to not let EMDR change anything but the trauma is unrealistic. I signed up for trauma-informed therapy after my husband was arrested and I found it incredibly difficult to leave him and began scouring through my own childhood trauma wondering how on earth I ended up where I did (and with who I did) after all I had thought I did to heal from trauma already. The pressure to heal something in attempt to prevent future bad things from happening is often paired with a pressure to heal quietly so as not to cause trauma to others who are still hiding in fear and it is... A LOT. It pains me thinking how much of my recovery time has been spent feeling guilty about what my healing may mean for my relationships to others who I care for but who are ultimately tied to the trauma I'm trying to heal from.
EMDR is magic, and there are tricks to get the most of your session. This includes trying to set aside some time after session to rest or even sleep and being extra kind to yourself as any emotions come up. Write things down. Let yourself feel whatever you feel and take good care of you. Sometimes for me this means getting ice cream, other times it means a bath, and still others it means a walk and sleep.
Will EMDR make you feel better?
Yes, and no, and maybe, but I don't know because we are not the same.
What I do know is that EMDR isn't about feeling better; it's about healing. Often (almost always), healing hurts.
Give yourself some time to feel better and give yourself some time in-between sessions to fully process what last occurred. A month in-between for me seems to be good for a few months in a row with extended break to reassess what needs to happen next.
Quite an empowering process, really.
EMDR is like magic in that with some preparation, assisted eye movement or tapping can help someone reprocess traumatic injury and heal from traumatic memory. I have found incredible healing in the sessions and a greater awareness of the "whys" in my own story. I have found validation I needed. It's not that the validation necessarily makes me feel "better," but it makes me feel more whole. It explains the things I have always questioned. It lets me take my power back (probably, honestly, for the first time in my entire life).
P.S. It's a process, but it shouldn't be overwhelming and it certainly should not be retraumatizing.
If you experience distress after your session, call your therapist. The way EMDR sessions should close is with you feeling comfortable and secure enough to continue moving through the world.
If an EMDR session seems to have made your anxiety worse or you feel really unsettled (like more than a bit of emotional discomfort), call your therapist.
If you are experiencing thoughts of suicide, please tell someone. If you don't have a safe person to go to right now, call Talk Suicide Canada any time of day or night at 1.833.456.4566.
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