Healing Trauma With EMDR Therapy
Healing trauma with EMDR therapy
Judith Haire writes about the intensely powerful experience of eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing
Eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EMDR) was developed in the l980s by American clinical psychologist, Francine Shapiro. Recently diagnosed with cancer, Francine noticed bilateral eye movements seemed to calm her when she thought about her illness. She found her eyes were involuntarily moving rapidly when she experienced a disturbing thought and when she brought her eye movements under voluntary control while thinking a traumatic thought her anxiety was reduced.
Thinking she had discovered a technique for desensitisation, Francine developed a therapy called eye movement desensitisation (EMD). She then found that in addition to desensitising the patient to their traumatic memory the therapy instigated spontaneous cognitive changes. Patients were reprocessing their ‘frozen’ traumatic memories so that trauma became integrated with other memories. A traumatic memory and associated stimuli are inadequately stored in an isolated memory network; this process is dysfunctional.
The aim of EMDR is to process the distressing memories to reduce their lingering influence so the patient can develop more adaptive coping mechanisms. In post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), we continue to experience the trauma as if it is happening now. After EMDR a patient can recall and describe the event and what’s been learned but the distressing emotions have been discarded. EMDR is most useful for PTSD but is also successful in treating depression, obsessive compulsive disorder and physical pain.
I grew up in a dysfunctional family and experienced trauma in my childhood and in my adult life (rape, domestic violence). Diagnosed with PTSD, I self-referred to my local IAPT service for 12 free sessions of EMDR. I worked with a therapist who was already familiar with my trauma history and we spent the first 3 sessions painstakingly assessing the areas we’d be working on and thinking up negative and positive statements to work on.
It is necessary to be psychologically robust to undergo EMDR as it is powerful emotionally, cognitively and physically. I was asked to practise breathing techniques to calm me in case we had a particularly disturbing session and to conjure up an imaginary ‘safe place’ to elicit comfortable feelings and a positive sense of self to bring closure to an incomplete session or help me tolerate a particularly upsetting session.
Each session lasted up to 90 minutes and I sat on a chair close to and facing the therapist. We worked on one of the negative statements and I brought an image into my mind. The therapist held up her hand in front of my eyes and moved her fingers back and forth and my eyes followed her. This was quite difficult at first and demanded a lot of concentration. This phase lasted for 20-30 seconds and afterwards she would ask me what had come up. I would report briefly on the different imagery I’d seen and the different physical sensations I’d experienced.
Because I found it difficult to cope with the eye movements, the therapist used an alternative method (she would tap on the backs of my hands with her fingers) so that I could close my eyes and concentrate on the image in my mind.
We used SUDS (Subjective Units of Disturbance) to measure how much the negative statement affected me before and after the therapy; the goal was to reduce the score to 0-1.
In sessions I found myself feeling tearful. I had huge multiple shivers. My face tingled at the sides. I had dreadful nausea. My jaw was set and hard. I felt extremely frightened. My therapist would speak softly to me saying: “It’s in the past, you’re safe now.”
I saw a lot of images in my mind: myself looking very miserable; being beaten by my abusive first husband; myself as a very small child; scary images of my parents. I’d had no idea so much trauma had been trapped and frozen in my body. I found myself gulping with a constriction in my throat but feeling a difficulty in swallowing; it felt heavy in my thorax; I had a sinking feeling as if I was going to go right through the floor and my head was bowing as if I was going to adopt the foetal position; I felt squashed; I felt someone was hauling me under my ribcage and pulling me out of something; there was energy rushing through me; the backs of my thighs hurt and the back of one knee was puffy and painful. I was very scared and very emotional.
At the end of each session I would go to my ‘safe place’ and do a body scan to tell the therapist if there was any pain or discomfort in any part. I’d feel incredibly tired. On days between sessions I had some dreams which were more vivid than usual but overall I felt like a lot of energy had been released and I felt and looked much calmer.
I can only relate what happened to me as EMDR will affect different people in different ways. Some have more emotional reactions, some more physical. I wasn’t prepared for the intensity of the therapy nor for the awful nausea and distressing physical reactions and sensations. I found the therapy very emotional and ‘raw’ but having finished my sessions I do feel different and would say the therapy has been beneficial and healing to my psyche. I would have no hesitation in recommending EMDR as a means of healing trauma.
First Published in Your Voice Magazine Spring 2013