Well, this is embarrassing.
My most recent blog post was titled Where I’ve Been for the Last 4 Months. That was almost 3 months ago, which is… not great. But hey, life happens! And man, did a whole lot of life happen in these last 3 months.
This blog post isn’t about the full scope of the recent insanity. But for those who are curious, I spent March-April buried in a massive project for Opera Theatre of Saint Louis. Side note: OTSL is an incredible local arts organization, and their festival opera season runs May 25-June 29. Check out the Young Friends events for some amazing ticket deals, and while you’re enjoying a show, please do marvel over the 160 page program book that consumed my every waking moment for 8 weeks!
In addition to the OTSL project, March and April brought a number of urgent care/ER visits, a massive kitchen renovation, and a new job offer for Andrew. Not all bad, by any means, but yikes. Enough is enough, yo!
The last week or so has ushered in a cathartic change of pace. I’ve had time to paint the kitchen, put our house back together, do laundry, breathe normally. And at long last, I have capacity to dig into a subject that’s been on the blog docket for quite some time.
The Science of EMDR
Back in the fall, I sought out a new counselor, specifically one who was certified in EMDR. For the rookies out there, EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. Prepare to have your socks knocked off, because the science behind this unique method of psychotherapy is (somewhat literally) mind-blowing.
If you’ve ever experienced any sort of trauma, you know that painful memories can fester. Like a clogged pipe or an infected wound, ripples spread, creating new problems that multiply and escalate quickly. Until that root cause is appropriately and thoroughly addressed, healing is more or less impossible.
Back in the late 1980s, Dr. Francine Shapiro discovered a relationship between eye movement and a decrease in negative emotions associated with distressing memories. Intrigued and well-aware of the potential implications, she dove into case studies to test her hypothesis. The results spoke for themselves: with a cognitive element added to eye movement stimulation, EMDR essentially cured the negative effects of traumatic experiences.
Allow me to summarize: EMDR can rewire the brain to treat PTSD and negate the debilitating effects of traumatic memories.
Cheers to you, Dr. Shapiro!
But how, exactly, does eye movement relate to these painful memories? During EMDR therapy, the client focuses on emotionally distressing material in brief doses, while simultaneously focusing on a physical, external stimulus. In my case, I hold a small disc in each hand, attached to a control box that my therapist adjusts to create alternating ‘tapping’ sensations, sort of like a phone on vibrate mode. These alternating ‘tappers’ kick my brain into hyperdrive, improving my ability to process information, while also allowing me to forge new connections between the traumatic memory and new, adaptive information.
Isn’t the human brain incredible?!?
The Experience of EMDR
In casual conversation, EMDR can sound like a cryptic, intimidating, massive endeavor. And honestly, ‘intimidating’ and ‘massive’ are not inaccurate ways to describe the experience. Before you even begin the process, you acknowledge that 1) you have experienced trauma and 2) you’re going to sit in those painful memories, experience those moments with fresh eyes, and feel all the scary feelings again.
And yes, you’re doing this on purpose.
So yeah, it’s an intimidating concept! But it’s also a worthy, empowering therapy to choose for yourself. It’s an act of defiance, in a way: challenging the lies of your past, facing down the false narratives that you’ve adopted, and determinedly moving forward in the light of the truth.
I didn’t ask a ton of questions leading into my own adventure with EMDR, and I wish I’d done more research in advance. So for the sake of you, Reader, let’s talk about what it’s really like in the EMDR hot seat (from my unique, limited perspective!).
You don’t actually start EMDR therapy in your first session; there’s a bit of prep work required to get to that point. As with more standard talk therapy, your counselor will get to know you and understand your current challenges, relevant history, and goals before diving into EMDR.
To prepare, my counselor had me do a couple of assessments, one of which determined my Top 3 negative schemas: concepts that I have adopted as true over time, which shape and filter all of my thoughts, behaviors, and feelings. Everyone has schemas of their own, whether they’re aware of them or not, and some are positive while others are negative.
Here are a few examples of icky, negative schemas:
I am unworthy of love.
I am a failure.
Everyone will abandon me in the end.
People are cruel and they will hurt me.
Something bad is going to happen.
It’s my fault.
So, those are fun.
After we identified my 3 negative schemas, my counselor and I explored my past to identify target memories for each schema. The target memory is an early memory (often the earliest memory) that reinforces the negative schema as true. It’s also a distressing memory, something that is already considered traumatic, perhaps, or is distressing when pondered in depth for the first time.
At this point, it’s worth nothing that I didn’t come into EMDR to process one-off trauma, such as a car accident, or being robbed at gunpoint. I imagine the set-up procedures for processing very specific memories would be somewhat different. In my case, I was processing complex, sustained trauma over time. All this to say, each situation and unique counselor’s approach will vary!
Once the target memories were identified, we picked the strongest/most distressing one, and it was time to dive into the heart of EMDR.
For the sake of specificity, we’ll use my first (completed!) target and associated schema as an example:
Target memory: A moment from my childhood when I wanted to ask for help, but didn’t feel like I could.
Negative schema: “I can’t safely express what I feel or want.”
Target cognition: “I can safely express what I feel or want.”
For me, a typical EMDR session goes something like this:
- I have an opportunity to share any new information or check in with my counselor before starting.
- My counselor hands me the tappers. I hold one in each hand, get into a comfortable seated position, and close my eyes. My eyes are closed for the rest of the session.
- My counselor asks me to immerse myself in the target memory, and gives me a moment to pull up the picture mentally. She might ask me to notice specifics in the room, or other sensory details.
- To begin, my counselor generally asks a series of questions:
- On a scale of 1 to 10, how much distress do you feel when you look at this picture?
- On a scale of 1 to 7, how true does the following statement sound: “I can safely express what I feel or want.” (Here, she names the opposite of my negative schema, the ‘target’ cognition that I’m trying to get my brain to adopt.)
- Where do you feel the distress in your body? For example, I often feel distress in my chest.
- From here, my counselor asks me to focus on that sensation in my body, or a specific detail that I’ve honed in on from the target memory. “Just go with that,” she might say.
- For a period of time, we sit in silence. My counselor turns on the tappers, so they are buzzing gently in each of my hands. I focus my mind where she has asked me to, and notice what other details or memories arise. This is all about letting my brain lead me down necessary paths–I am not consciously making these connections. My brain is doing the work, revealing related problems in my past. (Cool, right?!)
- After a period of time that my counselor magically determines (seconds to minutes), she turns the tappers off, and asks me to describe what came up. I keep my eyes closed while I share out loud what came up in my mind. It might be an entirely new memory, a thought about the initial memory, a detail I hadn’t noticed before, an emotion, a physical sensation, or a combination of the above.
- My counselor asks me a clarifying question, if needed, then asks me to focus on something that I’ve mentioned. Again, she turns on the tappers, and I follow my brain in silence.
- Repeat, repeat, repeat!
- Wrapping up a session varies a bit based on what comes up in the process. But often, my counselor will have me look at myself in a particular memory and focus on that version of myself:
- What does she need in the moment? Just notice.
- What do you feel when you look at her?
- Can you look at her with compassion? What do you notice?
- To ‘box me up’ neatly and gently, my counselor may ask me to put myself in a pre-determined safe space mentally, to notice the details of a room I like being in. Alternatively, she may ask me to think about a friend or loved one who is emotionally safe, and sit in that experience of being near them.
- My counselor tells me to open my eyes, we exchange a few closing thoughts, and we part ways until the next session.
Those are the mechanics of an EMDR session. But the true experience is much more than a list of steps. A number of other items are worth noting at this point.
It’s hard to hide/deflect. One of the reasons EMDR is so effective is that it’s significantly more difficult to run. In traditional talk therapy, you can avoid subjects left and right. You can use humor to hide what you’re really feeling or thinking. You can change the subject according to your whims. But in EMDR, the emphasis is firmly set on your memories, which means that you get right down to the crux of the matter. For rookies in EMDR who have a longer history of talk therapy, this contrast might feel quite exposing. Exposing, yes, but effective!
EMDR is utterly exhausting. The session itself is one matter — the body carries a lot of stress as it relives difficult moments, and that takes a toll. The brain is working hard to make new connections and dig deep into the memory stores. And on top of that, the subconscious work continues after the session is over! I generally go to bed early the day of a session, and try to allow time to sleep 11-12 hours that night. If I don’t get this extra sleep, I’m falling off my chair the entire next day out of exhaustion.
For this reason, though I initially did EMDR once a week, I pulled back to every other week pretty quickly after beginning the process. It was just too exhausting for me to keep up the pace, and my counselor totally supported my decision to pull back. Every other week is a better rhythm for me. With a good amount of sleep night-of, I can operate at 85-90% normalcy the next day.
I cry a lot. EMDR requires us to experience some things for the first time, or re-experience painful moments. In my experience, crying is inevitable, my friends. I regularly experience feelings of grief, shame, sadness, disappointment, and anger. But these intense emotions are worth digging into, because…
It gets easier. That pain of sitting in unsettling memories definitely isn’t perpetual! Eventually, as EMDR does what it’s designed to do, I become desensitized to the pain of those moments. I can be more objective when I look at a memory that was, previously, distressing.
And most importantly…
It’s 150% worth it. I find it deeply cathartic and empowering to 1) identify the junk in my past, 2) appropriately and objectively distance myself from my initial response, and 3) reframe the experience with a more accurate, truth-based lens. In a surprisingly small number of sessions, I’ve noticed a dramatic change in my emotional stability. I feel much more in control of myself, and much more confident in my ability to enter into challenging conversations and topics.
Though I’m more aware of the damage done in my past, I’m significantly less chainedby it. Day by day, I experience new freedom!
This is the gospel at work, my friends. I see EMDR as God’s merciful invitation to fully embrace the reality of Jesus’s death on the cross: we are truly dead to our past selves, and alive in Him. We are not enslaved by our own sin, the sin of others, or the brokenness of this world. We can fully embrace an identity that is rooted in the gospel, casting out all other narratives but the truth:
I’m a child of God, and love is my freedom!
I can ask anything of my Father the King.
I’m an heir, I’m adopted, and my brother is Jesus.
I’m a child of God, and my soul is at peace.
Cheers to freedom, my friends. May your own journey of healing lead you to a place of peace! As always, questions and comments welcome below.