Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy (EMDR) was originally developed by Dr. Francine Shapiro in 1987 while walking through a park. She was experiencing some disturbing thoughts, but as she walked, she found that the emotion went away. As a graduate student in psychology, Dr. Shapiro was drawn to figure out why. She realized that while she was walking, she had been looking from side to side, up into the trees, then over to the side of the path, back and forth.
Through further research and working with patients who lived with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Dr. Shapiro discovered that through the rapid eye movement while thinking on traumatic experiences actually lessened the impact of those experiences. Not only that, but patients were able to find peace after much less time than traditional talk therapy.
In this week’s post, I am using A Chronic Voice’s April Writing Prompts of Springing, Daunting, Grounding, Sustaining, and Luxuriating to talk about my experience with EMDR therapy and working towards calming down my amped up sympathetic nervous system.
The Hope of SPRING and EMDR Therapy
I love spring. After the snow covered hibernation of winter, compounded by the isolation created by this pandemic, I am especially relishing new life blooming forth. I’ve been digging in the cool dirt, planting some poppies in our wildflower hill, raking up the blanket of oak leaves that covers everything in our northern wood’s yard, and going on hikes or kayak rides to monitor nature’s gradual crescendo to summer.
I love to think about how Dr. Shapiro was in nature looking around when she discovered EMDR. I’ve been going to therapy, which has been a combination of EMDR (reprocessing a traumatic memory) and talk therapy since October. While I know I’m moving in a good direction, after ignoring that my trauma-laden childhood had impacted me for 54 years, I’m finding this to be rough, tough work.
I have found a hope in EMDR combined with talk therapy for helping actually get to the crux of my parasympathetic nervous system being constantly on high. I’m one who does a lot of reading and learning and so I have a lot of knowledge for what will help me, but to actually be able to “let down” and have peace in my body has seemed so impossible. EMDR is making that actually seem possible.
Childhood trauma, attachment trauma and developmental trauma, such as abuse or physical or emotional neglect, will take longer to process with EMDR or any type of therapy. This is mostly because it takes longer to achieve a foundation grounded by emotional stability. It takes time to establish resources self-care, from which the patient can comfortably and safely process the trauma.Robin Brickel in C-PTSD Foundation.org
- Growth Mindset: A Teacher’s Approach to Healing Chronic Pain
- Fully Living Strategies When in Chronic Pain
The Daunting Task of Starting Therapy
It’s scary starting therapy with someone new. Whether it’s your first ever experience or just beginning with a new therapist, it’s a daunting endeavor at best. I had a few experiences with talk therapy: Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) type prior to trying EMDR. And, while I had read up on the research and the how-tos of EMDR, I have to admit it seemed like a pretty weird concept.
On my first visit, my therapist made me feel at ease. She shared how she had gone through the process (a part of her own training) and how it had helped her work through her own trauma. This made me feel hopeful and comfortable with her from the start.
It’s really important (I think in every counseling situation), that you feel validated and comfortable with the therapist. In his book Complex PTSD: Surviving to Thriving, Pete Walker suggests, “A suitable therapist will be happy to answer your question about their approach and generally talk with you on the phone for at least five minutes before scheduling a meeting. Should the therapist respond to you in an aloof, critical or shaming way, I would immediately cross them off your list and keep looking. Finally, there are unfortunately many untherapized therapists in the community. I believe it’s appropriate to ask a prospective therapist if they have done their own therapy, and to at least get a response from them that indicates that they have and have found it helpful.”
Essentially, complex trauma creates a long-lasting trauma imprint or response that impacts your brain and body enough to feel like it’s a permanent change. Using the example above, the neural pathways of the brain connect the sight of the frown and danger, for instance. For people with complex trauma histories, the mind and body may be in a chronic state of stress and hypervigilance, always waiting for the other shoe to drop.
Robin Brickel in C-PTSD Foundation.org
Being my trauma isn’t a single event, but a childhood of uncertainty and fear being raised by a single mother who was undiagnosed schizophrenic and bipolar, it took a few sessions for her to get enough of my story to understand how best to start.
For me, telling her harrowing stories from my kidhood is just that-a storytelling. I can tell them like I would read outloud any novel to my students. I don’t feel emotional about it.
However, I do feel it in my body. I get a heavy, tight feeling at mid sternum. I’ve had this since for as long as I can remember. With Fibromyalgia now thrown into the mix, my body begins to react by clenching of my stomach muscles and inner thighs. Often my bladder (diagnosed with Interstitial Cystitis over 10 years ago) will begin to ache and burn. Often my shoulders and neck get more taught and can begin to cause a headache.
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Grounding and Regulating Exercises Before Reprocessing Starts
Grounding is a practice that can help you pull away from flashbacks, unwanted memories, and negative or challenging emotions. These techniques may help distract you from what you’re experiencing and refocus on what’s happening in the present moment.30 Grounding Techniques to Quiet Distressing Thoughts in Healthline (click to go to the article)
At my first visit, my therapist made what seemed to me to be a strange request. She asked that I create a container. This container, she explained should be able to be locked securely. However, it should also be “comfortable” for difficult thoughts to abide in.
Being I’m a big fan of all things Harry Potter, I immediately went to Dumbledore’s Pensive. However, that is open, so in the end, I came up with a wooden treasure chest with iron type closure. Inside, I put a light blue velvet lining.
Because I have been practicing breathing techniques for calming down my nervous system, I imagine that I breathe in healing and breathe out the stressing emotion/thoughts into the box and the closing the lid and latching it tight. I practiced this for a couple of weeks.
In addition, she had me try a few others. My favorite is imagining a favorite place (no people added in) that I would go to. I’ve woven together a few favorite places. I walk down an aspen tree laden path. The leaves are yellow of fall, yet it’s summer (warm and brilliant blue skies). The yellow, silver dollar leaves litter the path like Dorthy’s yellow brick road. This path leads to a secluded small lake surrounded by white pine and aspen. I sit down on the warm, sandy beach, leaning up against a warmed smooth boulder, looking out at the sparkling ripples on the lake. The sun is warming the left side of my face. Sometimes I imagine diving in and swimming in the warm yet refreshing water. I can feel the support of the water, giving me weightlessness.
EMDR Reprocessing by Sustaining Focus on a Specific Traumatic Event
After my counselor got to know enough of my story (not all) which took about three sessions and I was comfortable with centering techniques (which I practiced during that 3-week time in session and on my own), we were ready to start the reproccessing of my trauma.
Choosing the Traumatic Event
As I have mentioned, I have many memories of traumatic events from those I was told of as an infant to those I remember. However, most are pretty vague and I don’t have a lot of sensory detail nor a complete time line. Most are snippets of images, facial expressions, sounds, emotions…
I finally chose one episode that I know what happened before, during, and after semi-clearly. It was the last time I ran away from home after a fight with my mom. I walked the 5 miles into town to the home of a friend I had become pretty close with in the past few months.
This scene is laden with guilt, fear, anger, resentment, and deep, deep sadness. It was the last time I lived with my mom and sister, together as a family. My mom, arriving at the home, went into an intense rage when I wouldn’t come out and get into the car. The police were called and she ended up threatening my life, my friend’s family, and herself. She was taken in handcuffs into the back of the police car. From the police station, she was committed to the state psychiatric center.
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How Reprocessing Works
As we touch base on whatever is on my mind, my counselor gets out the hand tappers. These tappers cause a buzzing noise and vibration. I hold one in my right and one in my left hand. She asks for me to bring up the event as vividly as I can. Before turning them on, she fills out a rating scale of sorts, asking me what level of stress I am feeling, where in my body I’m feeling it, and what emotions I am feeling as I think of it.
From there, she turns on the tappers which buzz in alternate hands at a rapid pace while I sustain focus on the event. Visualizing on this, like a meditation, my mind goes from one thing to the next. I don’t talk during this time. Often I get pretty emotional, crying and shaking. My counselor stops me to ask what I am feeling. She’s taught me to notice where in my body I’m feeling sensations and I explain this with as much specific detail as I can with words- which is NOT easy to do. I often will explain where my thoughts went to and emotions I’m feeling.
She generally doesn’t say much during this time. “Good, keep going with that. You’re doing well,” she’ll encourage. She has mentioned to me that she observes certain body language, facial expressions, etc. to know when to stop.
As we get close to the end of the session, she slows down the tappers quite a bit, and tells me to use my grounding techniques to bring myself back to calm. Using the container, slow breathing, and visualizing my happy place, I bring myself to a point that I can leave the room without being agitated.
After this, I’m pretty spent. Many times I go home and don’t do much at all. However, I always feel lighter somehow. Often I even feel a bit giddy, joyful. The first 3 or 4 weeks of reprocessing found me having more difficult days during the week. I experienced great sadness, a “fibro” flare of fatigue and fibro fog.
The previous three weeks, I have had a very difficult time writing my blog post. However, after yesterday’s session, I felt energized. I actually went grocery shopping afterwards. My husband noted what a good mood I was in. And today, I have finally written this post after 3 weeks of attempting it. I think I’m healing!
*EMDR uses bilateral stimulation, which can be through side to side eye movement, stimulation in right/left via the hand tappers, or even feet tapping. Online, you can even find special music that plays bilateral beats. You must wear ear phones to benefit from this.
Good Therapy is a Luxury that Should be Available for Everyone
I feel very fortunate to be able to experience such a high quality, healing therapy. In the rural area I live in, there are very few choices for therapists that are within a 30 minute drive. I’m blessed with a 10 minute drive to my therapist’s office. Not only are there few to chose from, but those that are available aren’t always ones I would feel comfortable with. (See the above comment on choosing a therapist.)
Beyond the difficulty of finding a quality therapist is affording the needed sessions. I’m fortunate that my insurance covers infinite visits, leaving me with a $30.00 co-pay. So, with going every week, I’m paying about $120.00 a month. This is a cost I can handle. So many in the USA either don’t have insurance or can’t afford the co-pay. This can result in not being able to go to therapy or possibly getting lower quality help due to being regulated to public free services.
I had a friend point out that the very wealthy generally have a therapist on staff. Therapy should be a luxury that everyone has access to.
EMDR and Fibromyalgia
For those of you reading this, you are probably asking is EMDR going to help with the issues stemming from Fibromyalgia. From my own experience thus far is yes in that it is helping me let down in my muscles, but also is helping me towards calming down my nervous system which I believe is directly connected to chronic pain, fatigue, and brain fog. However, this is my story. You will have to investigate for yourself to see if you feel it might help you.
- EMDR in the Treatment of Chronic Pain
- How EMDR Opens a Window to the Brain
- Courage, Neurobiology, and EMDR Therapy
- EMDR: Taking a Closer Look via Scientific American
The format for this post is thanks to A Chronic Voice linkup. This month, the topics were Springing, Daunting, Grounding, Sustaining, and Luxuriating. Each writer takes the given topics and gives them their own spin. Check out these wonderful writers at April 2021 Linkup (scroll past the prompts to find the linked up posts).
Thank you for visiting my blog today. However, as you know, my new normal means that sometimes I have to listen to my body and am not able to follow through as planned. Thank you for your understanding.
Sharing is caring- at least, that’s what my granddaughter says;)