EMDR - Knots in the Yarn
How Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Worked for Me
I’m no stranger when it comes to baring my soul. I believe my vulnerability strengthens me. But I’m pretty private about the most traumatic events and patterns in my life, because well, I figure no one really needs to know, we all carry life’s baggage, and for the most part, there are many things that are nobody’s business.
However, I want to share some thoughts that I hope might help fellow PTSD survivors feel more hopeful. If I can offer insight into something that has truly aided me with long-buried trauma and post-traumatic stress, I kinda feel it is my responsibility to share. I’m just going to put this out there, in the hopes that someone might benefit from it. And, of course I’m not a doctor, and I don’t recommend particular therapies because as I’ve learned, a lifesaver for one individual can prove ineffectual or even harmful for another. That being said, I didn’t know anything about this therapy until a few months ago, and it’s with no exaggeration that I say it changed my life.
Here's how it began:
Quite randomly and without any warning, I came across tangible proof about a long-buried suspicion of abuse I’d carried with me since I was a young child. Nonetheless, revealing the truth wasn’t an ‘aha!’ moment; rather, it was an ‘oh my god it all makes sense now, and no wonder…whoa, this was the origin of all that happened later on, and how dare this bastard sow the seeds to destroy so many lives?’
Uh-huh, it wasn’t the usual garden-variety trauma, anxiety and depression I’d dealt with over the years. This was the biggest, juiciest, meanest heirloom tomato of a trauma I’d never even imagined!
Thank goodness my intuition immediately told me that the usual cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) wasn’t the answer. I benefited from CBT so many times over my adult years. But now I was stuck. Immobilized. Sick to my stomach. No amount of talking and rethinking was going to put this new monster in its place.
So I contacted a dear friend, a very well-respected psychotherapist, to ask her what I should do. And she recommended a radically different (to me) therapy, along with someone who was very well trained in it.
And for the past two months I have been participating in a psychotherapy called EMDR, or Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing.
I’ve learned how it works, and while it seems deceptively simple, it speaks to the neuroplasticity of the brain (which is what I’ve studied for the past couple of years). It’s quite remarkable, really, how some parts of the brain can take over for what I’ll call the ‘broken’ parts. Not only have I lived this experience, I’ve studied neuroplasticity through brain injury rehabilitation courses through Brock University and the Ontario Brain Injury Association. So while EMDR might seem kinda wacky, it makes sense if you understand how the brain works.
Here’s what happens:
During the first stage, you learn about physical and emotional reactions to trauma. You and your therapist determine how ready you are to focus on your trauma memories in therapy. To help you prepare for this challenging journey, you will learn some new coping skills.
I went in ready to go. I wanted to slap these trauma memories upside the head. I was angry, because I realized my new discovery was intrinsically linked to pretty much every choice I’ve ever made in my entire life. How ‘bout that? Pissed? You bet I was. I wanted to put this shit in its place.
I put my brain in gear and off we went. And I did learn some new coping skills that certainly helped me get through the toughest times between appointments.
My therapist and I worked through an entire childhood memory assessment—from the time I was three until I was about 18. This part is completed through a couple of sessions (for me, anyway, because there were several memory points we had to work on). This helped us determine what we needed to further explore.
At that point you identify the upsetting memory ‘target’ you want to focus on— including negative thoughts, feelings and physical sensations related to the memory. You might discover that your ‘target’ isn’t the memory for which you initially sought therapy, if other trauma pops up in your assessment. Don’t worry about which one to pick—you’ll eventually get to where you need to be. Personally, at this point I recall feeling sick to my stomach, like I’d swallowed lead cement.
Anyway, you hold that ‘target’ memory in your mind while focusing on a back-and-forth motion (like a flashing light, or a tone that beeps in one ear at a time) or a repetitive motion (like tapping your collarbones with your fingertips) until your stress level dissipates. I know, it sounds weird, right? The exercise continues for about 30 seconds at a time, and then you will talk about your thoughts and feelings. You take those thoughts and feelings into the next 30-second-ish exercise. For me, each short exercise felt like I was unraveling a long string of knotted yarn—I’d get to one knot, untie it, and move on to the next until the yarn was free of knots.
Eventually, you will focus on a positive feeling as you hold the memory in your mind. If you have several targets to work through, you can do that—one at a time. I found that as I started working through my trauma memories, each subsequent one became a little easier to deal with.
Due to COVID, my therapist and I used a private version of Zoom for our sessions. Initially, I tapped my collarbones during the exercises, but then we switched to the flashing lights and that worked better for me. I was a little hesitant, because of the way my brain reacts to flashing lights, but it was fine…well, better than fine. It worked really well.
EMDR doesn’t obliterate memories of trauma but it obliterates the stress response associated with those memories. I can think of them now without eliciting a stress response. Previously, my heart rate would increase, my breath would become shallow, and I would become visibly upset when recalling traumatic events.
Sure, bad things were done to me and I experienced events and horrors that never should have happened. I’ll never forget that.
But now, I’m calm. It’s like I’ve moved the traumatic memories to a different, safer place in my brain, where they can be stored without delivering a shot of fear and shame and horror whenever they arise.