EMDR Therapy: Rewiring the Fibro Brain

Kayak in the crisp April morn.

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

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.

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)
Text in blue: Container Exercise with a visual of a wooden treasure box with a brass closure for Grounding and regulating
The container can be anything. Needs to make sense to you.

Container Exercise

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.

Blue Text: Imagery Exercise with image of a path with aspen trees lining it.  The leaves a bright yellow and gold. Imagery is used for grounding and regulating.
Need to make the scene as
multi-sensory and detailed as possible.

Imagery Exercise

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.

Blue font: Reproccessing Trauma Image of a sad young woman looking out a window her hand pressed to the glass.
Reprocessing this one traumatic event
has made me realize the layers of guilt, sadness,
anger, and fear that I’ve lived with all my life.

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.

Blue text: Reprocessing Trauma Image of feminine hands typing on a lap-top keyboard to show my healing experience that has allowed me to finally write about EMDR therapy.

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.

Dr. Andrew Huberman supports EMDR as a form of rewiring the brain-especially with trauma.
He talks about how this therapy ignites our dopamine center for taking a forward step towards healing.

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.

A 36-minute presentation by Gary Brothers, LCSW, Psychotherapist, EMDR Training on The Role of EMDR in Managing Chronic Pain and SUD, 2018.

Further Resources:

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.I am committing to posting once a week on Fridays.  

Sharing is caring- at least, that’s what my granddaughter says;)

teal line drawn waterlily with teal lettering of the title and motto

12 thoughts on “EMDR Therapy: Rewiring the Fibro Brain

  • April 17, 2021 at 4:56 pm

    I’m happy for you that you’re getting a benefit and good therapy. ?

  • April 19, 2021 at 9:50 am

    This is so interesting. Thank you for sharing your experiences with EMDR. And also about your traumatic past – which is definitely not easy. I’ve learned a lot from this post!

  • April 19, 2021 at 1:42 pm

    Thank you for sharing such a vulnerable topic this month in the Linkup. You are so brave and beautiful. Sending my love and I do need to explore EMDR a little more too!

  • April 19, 2021 at 1:45 pm

    Katie – I’m so glad to hear that it’s helping! I really appreciate your thorough explanation of EMDR as it’s something I’ve considered trying. My past traumas are more mild(my mother was emotionally unreliable for a few years as she processed through her own abuse – and shared too many details with me) – but I can begin to imagine how hard your childhood was and how you were forced to grow up too soon.
    I feel like I’m pretty disconnected from much of my childhood and blame my depression for some of it. I’ve been told the EMDR is more useful for people with truamatic events instead of stressful life experiences, and I’m thinking more about investing in some EMDR treatments for myself.
    Thanks so much for sharing this experience!

  • April 21, 2021 at 8:26 pm

    Wow, I hadn’t heard of this type of therapy before. Thanks for sharing your experience. I definitely think therapy is a resource everyone needs access to.

  • April 23, 2021 at 11:24 am

    I had heard of this therapy, but didn’t know what it entailed. Thank you for being so brave as to share what happens at a session. I really hope that it brings you some relief x

    • April 23, 2021 at 2:48 pm

      It seems to be chipping away at the layers of trauma that I have (and didn’t ever really register it to be trauma). The fibromyalgia has forced me to realize what has caused this amped-up sympathetic nervous system of mine. I hope besides helping me become more authentic, it helps my pain processing to calm down.

    • April 24, 2021 at 11:28 pm

      I always love reading your posts, so thorough and helpful! I think you mentioned EMDR to me before and I don’t recall getting around to looking into it so thanks for saving me some time 😛 I may have to discuss it whenever I hear back about starting CBT.

      • April 26, 2021 at 9:54 am

        Glad you find my posts helpful. Yes, reach out anytime.

  • April 24, 2021 at 7:47 am

    Katie – It’s great that you’ve found a therapist you are able to work with and can share your experiences to help others. Although I have never heard of EMDR, I truly believe in the therapeutic benefits of getting outside! Right before the pandemic began we lost our older dog. I realized I hadn’t been walking the dogs much because of her age and frailty. So to help cope with that I started walking the younger dog every day again. When the pandemic hit and we were spending all our time at home and I was mostly working from home, that daily walk was my therapy to get outside, smell the air, watch the horses, cows, donkeys, and whatever interesting things I saw, and wave at the neighbors and say hi from a distance. That daily me time is really good for the soul!

  • April 30, 2021 at 6:03 am

    It’s great you’ve realized the connection between trauma and that being stuck in fight and flight in the long term contributes to chronic illness, I found this to be a big part of my healing.

    The way Irene Lyon explains it (she has some awesome videos on this) is that the body is stuck in fight and flight over the long term, and this is like having the break and accelerator on, and it will suppress your immune system, making you more susceptible to infections (it was lyme for me) and other systems of your body, organs etc. This has real physiological contributions to chronic illness and symptoms.

    I found CBT to be unhelpful, because there was much deeper things going on.. and with that stuff at the deeper level it’s almost impossible to force yourself to change your thoughts. But going to the deeper level, the trauma, deeper emotions helps your thinking patterns to change naturally.

    I haven’t done EMDR, but found Somatic Trauma Therapy to be very useful as alot of it is stuck in our body. For me the very important step was creating a sense of safety in my system, which then allowed the trauma to come up naturally in it’s own time. I wasn’t sure if EMDR did this, but reading your article it sounds like the initial imaginary exercises can help with this step.

    That’s some intense things you’ve gone through, I can identify with how much trauma has a big effect though for me it was different. My main one i’ve been working with all my life is abandonment from adoption. Glad you found something that works for you.

    • April 30, 2021 at 7:28 am

      Thank you, Ben, for sharing your process. I’ve watched several videos from Irene Lyon. I’m doing some somatic work, too. Trying a lot of things that are complementary to the EMDR. I know I’m making progress. Just wish my body was willing to let go a little faster?

      I do feel working through trauma is not a one and done but layers. It feels like several have been removed, I feel physically lighter.


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