I first heard about Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) Therapy when I studied psychology at university. At the time, there was not a lot of research evidence around it and my lecturer didn’t give it much credence. To be honest, it sounded like a heap of hogwash to me.
The next time I heard about EMDR was in my psychologist’s office. We had spent almost a year talking on and off about my traumatic childhood and some memories still evoked an overwhelming emotional response in me. Talking about my mother in therapy, our tumultuous relationship and the abuse I suffered at her hands, always brought on an onslaught of emotion. I still have nightmares about the abuse. I struggle with this part of my life and it brings me great sadness. My psychologist suggested that we might try EMDR to help me move past my trauma to bring me peace and to help my mother and I establish a renewed and healthier relationship. Since I had first heard about EMDR years earlier, it had developed a lot of research evidence to demonstrate its effectiveness, especially for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Still skeptical, but willing to try anything, I agreed to give it a go.
Traumatic Memories In The Brain
We encounter a phenomenal amount of new information and new experiences every day. Generally, our brains process this information, working out what to store, how to store it and where to store it. This is a very natural process that is critical for our learning and development. It helps us make sense of our world. It is thought that this process occurs in our sleep, during Rapid Eye Movement (REM), a time when our brains are very active.
However, when we are overwhelmed by an extraordinary event like a natural disaster or when we experience ongoing distress like recurring childhood abuse, this routine information processing is disrupted. Our traumatic experiences may not get processed in the usual way and thus, they remain unprocessed. Our limbic system – the emotional part of our brain – keeps these experiences isolated in a memory network in a crude, emotional form. This network is disconnected from our cortex – the thinking part of our brain – so we are unable to process the traumatic experience to understand them. We are unable to use language to store them in a “story” mode that makes sense to us. They simply sit there, haunting us like some kind of poltergeist stuck between two worlds.
Later on when we experience something else that is similar to the traumatic event(s), our unprocessed memories can be triggered, resulting in powerful emotional responses. This interferes with our ability to be present in the moment and to learn from these new experiences. Instead, we re-live the fear, panic, distress, anxiety and anger that we experienced during the original trauma. So rather than moving forward, we get stuck in a hellish re-traumatising loop.
For example, if I experience conflict with my mother today and she starts yelling at me, instead of being able to use this new opportunity to learn and grow, my trauma memories are triggered and I am unable to think and rationalise. I simply feel the same sense of distress and helplessness that I felt in my childhood when she yelled and screamed at me for hours on end. My brain activates a set of systems that prevent me from reacting any differently to the way I have reacted a thousand times before.
The purpose of EMDR is to connect these isolated, unprocessed memories with other memory networks so they can be processed and stored in the natural way. Once this occurs, our emotional responses to those memories and their power over us, decreases. The hellish loop is broken and we no longer become so easily triggered when something reminds us of the traumatic experience.
My EMDR Session
EMDR uses a standardised protocol, meaning that a therapist will use a set of very specific steps to run an EMDR session. These steps have been researched and shown to be effective when they are administered just as they are.
My psychologist explained what EMDR was and gave me a handout to take home and read. She made sure that I understood the process and was willing to do the therapy. This is an important step because the therapy involves talking about traumatic experiences in great detail. I went to my first session with a particular memory that I wanted to work on. It was my first memory of physical and emotional abuse that I experienced with my mother at about five-years-old.
My psychologist and I sat close together, facing one another head on. She asked me to recall the memory and describe it to her in great detail. She asked me to describe the environment, the sights, sounds and smells, my feelings and what happened. I had to focus on the memory while she helped me recreate eye movements similar to those we have during REM sleep. She held up two fingers in front of my face and moved her hand rapidly from side to side for a short period of time whilst I tracked them with my eyes. We repeated this process numerous times and she asked me to continue focusing on that memory. In between eye movements, she asked me some specific questions about the memory and how I was experiencing it.
It was a truly bizarre and unexpected experience. When I initially described the memory I started to cry. As we continued, I felt some kind of distancing from the memory. My feelings of distress decreased. I usually recall that particular memory from my own perspective, as a terrified and confused five-year-old girl, but as the session went on, I started “seeing’ the scene from the perspective of an outsider. It was like I was watching a movie of my mother and I rather than being in the movie. Within that one session, I literally felt like that memory had changed and it no longer felt so overwhelming to me.
The session lasted about an hour and we debriefed about the process afterwards before scheduling my next therapy session. I left my psychologist’s office that day feeling a strange sense of elation, as if I had shone a light on something truly dreadful and could finally see it for what it was.
My Thoughts About EMDR
As someone who reveres science, I would be a hypocrite to continue to disbelieve the effectiveness of EMDR. It has been researched extensively within the context of trauma and has been shown to work. It is now recognised by the World Health Organisation as an evidence-based treatment for PTSD. It may be an odd kind of psychotherapy but if it works, it works. It has also been used for anxiety, depression, stress, phobias, addiction and pain management. Apart from the evidence and logic behind it, I like the concept that numerous memories may be addressed in one session. That is, EMDR may affect not only the memory you select to work on, but other memories that are linked to it in some way.
My personal experience of EMDR has definitely made a tentative believer out of me. I say tentative because I have not had any follow up sessions and I am curious about the long-term effects of the treatment. I know I had a dramatic, immediate and positive response to it, but how will I “see” this memory in a year’s time?
I haven’t had additional sessions purely because I had other pressing issues that I needed to use my sessions on, including a relapse of my bipolar disorder. But I intend to have further EMDR sessions this year to address some other memories that seem to haunt me. I believe this will be a crucial step in helping me move forward with my relationship with my mother.
Most of my traumatic memories involve abuse perpetrated by her and it still interferes greatly with our present relationship. As time goes on, the impact of our fractured relationship increasingly effects other people in our family and I have a strong sense of wasting time while I am unable to move forward. I know that others believe I harbour anger and resentment towards her and that I willfully choose to remain “stuck” in a cycle of hurt and pain. I know some will read this and believe that I choose to be a victim and I am full of excuses. I’m okay with that because I know my own truth. I have spent many hours of therapy since I was 15-years-old trying to move past my adverse childhood experiences. They haunt my waking and my sleeping hours and interfere with my life. I do want to move forward. However, I believe that I have unprocessed memories that are easily and often triggered, so I have been unable to heal. I am hopeful that EMDR will be the answer for me, to finally process those wretched memories and be free of them forever.
Read more about Childhood Trauma and The Brain here.