Toward a Healthier Worldview: Using EMDR to Move Past Trauma & Anxiety
Having had the privilege of growing up in a stable, loving environment, I don’t remember ever experiencing anything particularly traumatic as a child. While I do struggle with depression and anxiety, in the past I have had a tendency to categorize my experiences as somehow less valid than the experiences of those who have faced “real” trauma. Because of this, I have avoided treatments used for trauma therapy, believing (erroneously) that they wouldn’t be of use to me.
However, in a recent therapy session that took place after I’d gone through a particularly rough incident, my counselor asked me if I’d ever heard of a research-backed treatment called EMDR. I hadn’t, so he went on to explain the basic concept, adding that even seemingly non-traumatic moments in our lives can be very emotionally charged and stay with us for years, contributing to our worldview. My therapist was confident that EMDR would help me to process some of the events I’d recently experienced, as well as allow me to dig deeper and discover any negative thought patterns that were affecting the way I saw my life in the present. I agreed to give it a shot, and the results were astounding.
What is EMDR?
EMDR is an acronym for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. The goal of the treatment is to help the brain reprocess certain memories or events, replacing negative thoughts with positive and empowering ones. As the EMDR Institute puts it, “After successful treatment with EMDR therapy, affective distress is relieved, negative beliefs are reformulated, and physiological arousal is reduced.” The crucial technique used in EMDR is known as “bilateral stimulation”. Although there is not one universally accepted theory as to why bilateral stimulation works, it is generally thought that alternately stimulating both sides of the brain can lead to a more relaxed and comfortable state of mind. When we are more relaxed and our attention has been diverted away from negative thought patterns and into the direction of the visual, auditory, or tactile stimulation at hand, the brain is better able to process difficult memories.
There are two main stages of EMDR treatment. The first, commonly referred to as “desensitization”, is implemented when the patient recalls a particular traumatic memory or distressing thought in vivid detail while at the same time undergoing bilateral stimulation. The combination of visualization and bilateral stimulation helps to relieve the intense feelings of distress associated with the memory, eventually creating a distancing effect on the patient which can aid him or her in being able to process the trauma more effectively. Although the name EMDR alludes to eye movement as the primary method of bilateral stimulation, auditory and sensory methods can also be used (such as vibration in the hands).
The second stage of EMDR is known as Resource Development and Installation (RDI). After bilateral stimulation has been applied to the recollection of a particular memory and helped to relieve some of the distressing feelings associated with it, the mind is fertile soil for the seeds of more positive thought patterns to be planted. Bilateral stimulation is used again, but this time the patient concentrates on an empowering thought of their own, thereby linking the previously distressing incident with strength and healthy patterns of thinking.
All of this can sound quite technical, so read on to see what an EMDR session looks like in real life.
What happens in an EMDR session?
I can’t speak for all EMDR patients, and I’m sure that each therapist has their own particular way of administering the treatment. However, in order to illustrate just what a real-life EMDR session is like, here’s a look at how my own sessions went.
Although I’ve been seeing my counselor for years and he’s already familiar with my history, we started our first EMDR session by identifying the very first distressing memory that I associated with my current struggles. This was interesting because before we started discussing things deeply, I would not have placed this memory in the category of being “traumatic”. However, as we followed the web of my present issues back towards its core, they all seemed to point to one recurring belief: I am lacking something. I was able to pinpoint the exact moment that belief first started to take shape in my mind, and that was the moment my therapist and I used for our first round of EMDR.
My counselor handed me a set of buzzers, one for each hand. These buzzers were connected to a small switchboard controlled by my counselor. He explained that my job was to simply close my eyes and recall the memory we’d identified in as vivid detail as possible: smells, feelings, colors, emotions — all of it. While I was transporting myself back to that place, he’d be in control of the buzzing in my hands, and I was to allow my mind to wander freely. After a short amount of time, he’d stop the buzzing, I’d open my eyes, and we’d check in to see what thoughts had arisen.
To be honest, the first memory was pretty painful, which came as a shock! I’d recalled this memory a million times over the years and I’d never thought of it as particularly distressing, but now as I allowed my mind to be in that moment again, roaming as it wanted, it was so overwhelming that I actually started to cry! That’s when I knew that not only had we followed the web correctly, but that progress was about to be made. My therapist stopped the buzzers after about twenty seconds, and I opened my eyes, still teary-eyed. He asked me to blurt out the very last place my mind had gone, and although it felt a little silly and irrelevant, I did.
“Good,” he said. “Start with that now, and let’s do it again.”
We repeated the process with the buzzers over again several times, each time stopping to check in with where my thoughts had gone. I was absolutely amazed to see where my brain was taking me! One moment I’d been recalling an emotional incident, and not even five minutes later I was way past it and linking those memories to current problems and — even better — practical solutions.
After my mind had managed to work through these distressing memories in merely a matter of minutes, my counselor and I were able to nail down a healthy, empowering thought that could serve as a replacement for the painful, previously unprocessed one. Now that I’d distanced myself a bit from the trauma of the memory, it was time to use the buzzers again: this time to implant the new positive thought and begin to nurture it. Again, I held a buzzer in each hand, but this time the alternating vibrations occurred at a slower pace. I closed my eyes, focusing my mind on the positive (and more realistic) thoughts that my own mind had come up with, and let the vibrations wash through me. My therapist stopped the buzzers, the cue to open my eyes.
The speed of the vibrations, he explained, has to do with the nature of the thoughts we want the mind to focus on. While we’re recalling distressing memories, the rate of the buzzing is higher, but when we’re working to instill empowering feelings within those same memories, the buzzing slows down. We repeated this process of recalling negative thoughts, working through them with the help of the buzzers, and then spinning things in a positive light many times over the next several sessions. I can’t say that all EMDR sessions occur in exactly this way, but it is a helpful look into what a session may very well entail.
First off, a disclaimer: none of the suggestions I’m about to give you are meant to take the place of actual professional treatment. I’d like to emphasize that, especially if you are working through some particularly tough stuff, discussing legitimate EMDR treatment with a therapist is the ideal first step to take. However, if you’re simply curious about exploring the concept or if you (like me) have gone through the treatment and would like to continue its benefits in your own way at home, these ideas may be of use to you.
- Hug Yourself: Giving yourself a hug is comfort enough on its own (seriously, try it!), but when paired with the bilateral stimulation technique that is so central to EMDR, it can be extra effective. To use this method, simply cross your arms over your chest, letting your palms rest on opposite upper arms. Begin to tap your palms lightly to your arms, alternating sides. Left, right, left, right. Use this as a focal point of concentration to help ease anxiety and bring your mind back to a state of calm.
- Go For a Run: This might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but if you do like to run, you are probably already aware of its meditative, mood-boosting effects. Especially if you can get into a steady rhythm on your run, the alternating stimulation of your right and left brain through simply moving one foot in front of the other may help you to process thoughts in a way that is similar to EMDR.
- Strike a Pose…a yoga pose, that is. The practice of yoga postures is all about balance, which extends also to being conscious of each physical sensation that occurs within the body. By practicing each pose or flow on both sides of the body, we can sink deeply into our muscular awareness and, just as with running, activate both sides of the brain. Yoga is a wonderful way to bring your mind into focus, especially when practiced with special attention given to alternating between each side of your body.
Through simple methods like alternate tapping on your right and left knees, focusing on the rhythm of your feet pounding the pavement, or noticing the different sensations between Pigeon Pose on the left versus the right side, we can access some of the techniques behind EMDR treatment. Of course, it’s important to remember that working with a therapist with specialized equipment and know-how will take you much deeper into the process.
Tending the Garden
If you’re interested in trying EMDR with a professional, I encourage you to discuss the technique with your therapist or doctor. EMDR can be an effective way to reprocess trauma and other intense emotions, ultimately leading to a clearer, sharper perspective of your place in the world.
As a yoga teacher, I’m all about allowing the body, brain, and emotions to connect. At times, a yoga pose may be physically or emotionally intense, but with practice we can learn to sit quietly with the intensity, becoming aware of and redirecting our thought patterns toward a more integrating experience. In a way, the EMDR technique is similar; by allowing ourselves to be with our trauma (with the assistance of a trusted professional, of course), we can begin to work through the intensity and plant the seeds of empowered thinking.
My seeds often need to be watered, I’ll admit. For those of us who struggle with depression and anxiety, it can be tempting to let our sprouts wither away under the crippling heat of self-doubt and negativity. However, I’ve found that the best way to tend my garden is by gently pruning back the judgmental weeds that creep in, as well as allowing myself to drink up plenty of exercise, time with supportive friends, and unhindered journaling sessions. It’s a work in progress, and some days my plants look better than others, but I am continually grateful to my therapist for introducing me to the powerful technique of EMDR.
At the end of our session, my therapist looked at me intently. Having almost certainly read my expression already, he asked, “How do you feel?”
This time, the tears that came to my eyes were not ones of frustration or of feeling trapped; they were the kind of tears that come when the pain has finally ebbed and only a sense of calm remains. I handed the buzzers back to my counselor.
“I think it’s safe to say this thing worked.”
For more information about EMDR, please see the following resources: