What is EMDR Therapy and How Can it Help Me?
Updated: Mar 23, 2020
I did EMDR therapy for the good part of a year.
EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. It's used to treat trauma.
Essentially trained therapists use eye movement to engage each side of the brain. This relaxes the brain enough to be able to go back to the memories that have lasting traumatic effects on our psyche.
Trauma by definition is unprocessed pain. It doesn't have to be something others would describe as a traumatic like a car accident, a violent sexual crime, events at war etc. It's just simply pain that is unprocessed.
Later I'll walk you through some of the negative beliefs I held on to from my childhood and the experiences I processed to help me move on from those.
I went to EMDR every week for the good part of a year.
Before that I hadn't ever been to therapy. Maybe once in college where my assignment was to write down 5 things I was grateful for in my journal and I thought it was the biggest fluff out there. So I didn't go back.
I NEEDED therapy, though. Bad.
I just didn't know where to start! Who do I call? Are therapists all the same?
Being that I thought it was all fluff...I had no idea that therapists could specialize in different areas. No clue that there were different methods. I was clueless.
I was a single mom of 3 small kids. I had just moved in to my brother's basement and was lost. I was scared. I wasn't quite sure how to recover. Time maybe?
Having just left an abusive 9 year marriage I was so empty and confused. I had all of the pain and trauma from betrayal, abuse, manipulation, gas lighting, etc from my marriage but all of the sudden all of the unprocessed pain from my abuse as a child decided to find its way to the top as well. I was overwhelmed to say the least.
It all made sense, though. I had struggled with body dysmorphia, eating disorders, low self esteem for most of my teenage years and into my adulthood.
Where did all of that stem from? My childhood.
My sister in law, who I was living with at the time, repeated several times..."I think you need to go to therapy." I agreed but I couldn't take action. I didn't know how.
After some coercion she connected me with a friend of hers who had been going to a betrayal trauma/sex therapy group. The week after that I gained the strength to make the phone call and schedule an appointment.
I sat down with the lead therapist and after about 3 minutes he said "You need trauma therapy. If I were to meet with you it wouldn't do much good unless you had worked through the trauma."
So, I scheduled with Todd, the therapist who specializes in Trauma and EMDR therapy at Lifestar.
I mean, I had heard of trauma. But I had no clue I had experienced it. Let alone needed therapy for it. It opened my eyes to the severity of what I had been through and how much I was actually compressing inside of me.
The first EMDR session went like this:
I sat on his semi comfortable couch. Todd put a horizontal light bar on a tripod about a foot in front of me. The light was maybe 2 ft wide and 5 inches tall.
Here is an image from a scene from Greys Anatomy of Jo doing EMDR. Apparently they did a really great job in the accuracy of how one of these session goes but I can't seem to find that clip. Season 16 episode 5.
I grabbed the throw pillow next to me and placed it in my lap wondering how many people this pillow had comforted.
Todd handed me a set of black probes; one for each hand. They vibrated once in the left hand and once in the right hand and it would switch off matching the direction of the light bar.
While plugging in the light bar he told me to follow the light with my eyes. It would go across the bar left and then all the way to the right and repeat. He would time me for 1 minute and then the lights would stop and we would talk.
The first time he asked me how I was feeling. "Relaxed. Intrigued."
From there we processed some not so heavy experiences that needed work. Mostly, it was for me to get the hang of it to be able to process through some of the bigger stuff later.
While doing some talk therapy (simply talking though my feelings) I realized that I had a lot of unhealthy beliefs about myself and my body; It was gross. I was gross. It wasn't worthy of love. Nobody could actually be attracted to me. I didn't deserved to be in a healthy loving relationship. I deserved to struggle.
We narrowed these down to one specific event.
It ended up being the most effective situation I processed with EMDR. It was the series of events of being sexually abused by a neighborhood kid at the age of 8.
I had lived with all of those beliefs about myself since I was 8 years old.
My brain had tucked away the abuse for quite some time. It wasn't until 8 years after it happened that I woke up with a flood of memories of what had happened. It deeply hurt me. It deeply wounded me and I had no clue. I didn't know that until I was going through a traumatic divorce and BAM! It all hit at once. This was the first time I had ever processed it before. I was 30 years old and I was working through pain that had been living inside of me since I was 8. EIGHT!
I watched the light, nervously. Knowing I had to go back to the trailer that was permanently parked in the driveway of our childhood home. Knowing I had to re-experience all of the feelings and emotions of that little girl.
I had to.
Because as an adult those feelings were STILL hurting me. STILL causing me pain. STILL paralyzing me in some way shape or form.
While doing EMDR everyones brain reacts and processes differently. For some reason I always showed up in 3rd person and as an adult.
As my brain relaxed I stood in front of the door of the trailer as an adult 30 year old single mom...broken and barely hanging on. I opened the door and walked in finding 8 year old Annie on the bed of this trailer.
She was so innocent.
Her hands were dirty from playing outside all day. Her hair was bleached by the summer sun and her freckles stole the show as they always did this time of year.
I walked up to her not know at all what I was going to do. I wasn't sure what she needed...but I knew she was hurting and so confused.
I surprised myself as I intuitively picked her up in my arms and sat down where she had been laying. I began rocking her. She needed comfort. She needed someone to hold her. Her emotions were heavy inside of ME but as I rocked her and held her tight I could feel a relief in side of her.
I needed to tell her SO many things. How could I help her?
I started whispering in her ear...
"Just because this happening to you doesn't mean you are any less of a person than before."
"HE is wrong in this. HE is gross, not you."
"HE is making this choice, not you."
"YOU are a shining light."
"Little Annie, this hurts. And this is not ok. But this doesn't have to dictate your future. Because this has happened you can help people. You'll help people who are feeling the same things that you feel right now."
"This doesn't mean someone can't love you. You ARE lovable. You are worthy of the most intense love."
"What he is doing changes nothing about who you came into this world as."
"Know that you are going to be ok. Know that you will work through this. Know that you are perfect just as you are right now in this very moment."
"This is going to take years for you to understand and work through...and you are going to take some not so good paths...but you'll find your way. Just keep going!"
I whispered and I rocked her. I did this until I felt the tightness in HER heart relax. I held her until I, adult Annie was comforted.
We processed all of the things that had been hurting us and in that moment we healed each other.
This is what EMDR did for me. This is how it helped me not to be triggered by thinking or talking about what had happened to me 22 years earlier.
A common misconception about EMDR is that it hypnotizes you; It doesn't.
It simply relaxes your brain into a state that it is able access the memories that maybe haven't been in the top filing cabinet of our brain recently.
I did EMDR sessions for multiple experiences I've harbored pain in and what I found interesting is there were experiences I thought for sure I'd need to process but when it came right down to it and I was "In" the memory again I realized that I had done the work. I was watching it happen, reliving scary and horrible things...and feeling nothing.
Now, to the hard part. As if that wasn't hard, right?
After processing through some of the hard crap I was exhausted. It got worse before it got better. Having to relive experience after experience each week in order to sift through what exactly needed my attention was tiresome. I went home each time feeling over stimulated and it would take me a couple of days each time to jump back.
It was tricky to want to be present with my kids during these times. I didn't have much to give. I just knew, though, that this time was crucial for me to take the time for me to heal properly. That suppressing everything I had been through would only get me so far. I could sacrifice and dedicate this time to healing OR struggle my whole life just to even exist.
Eventually, I got to the point where I am able to go for a run and process through a lot on my own. I found that because running uses the left and right side of my brain similar to following the light it works to calm my brain in a similar way. If I really focus on relaxing I am able to work through the emotions I'm feeling and really process through what I need to. Running has been a key tool in my healing journey.
I hope that in reading this you can know you are not alone. That we all have things. That it isn't ridiculous for us to need to work through events that happened as a child no matter how old you are. I hope you know that its never too late to start the healing journey. I hope you understand that PTSD can happen to anyone and start out of nowhere.
It may be a sign your body is ready to start healing from those events.
I guess what I'm trying to say is...if you've considered EMDR, I totally recommend it!
If you've enjoyed reading this blog or have been inspired by something I've shared I'd love for you to follow along this journey with me at @hashtagfly_ on instagram and Hashtag Fly on Facebook.