This summer I began a course in Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR) A type of therapy that was developed specifically for treating Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). It involves eye movements, as the name suggests, and sometimes tapping or sounds on each side of the head. I won’t go into too much detail about the theory behind EMDR as there are textbooks and long courses to explain that. (For a brief intro check out “How EMDR Works” animation or check out some of the links below for more on EMDR). Suffice to say there is ample evidence (30+ randomized control trials) and endorsement from the World Health Organization for this type of treatment.
During the course we had to practice EMDR with each other. So, instead explaining all the steps I learned in the course, I’ll just tell you about my experience.
We were told to choose a recent event that was moderately distressing, about a 4 out of 10 in intensity, for the purpose of the exercise. I had a situation where I’d felt a strong reaction to a person with whom I’d had a mixed history with. We didn’t have to go into details with our instructor or fellow students if we didn’t want to. Instead, we we were asked to describe an image that would represent the worst part of that memory. For me, it was an image of this person breaching my brick wall of defence. We described emotions connected to that experience, mine were defensiveness, fear and anger. We also described any body sensations, for me it was pressure in my chest and throat. We then gave a statement about ourselves that represented a belief that we have about ourselves as a result of that situation.
I believed that I was required to give more than I have.
In this way, we covered our minds, body and emotions in relation to that event.
After we’d shared these things, we were asked to think about the image, the self belief, the physical sensations. and the emotion and “float back” to a previous situation which felt similar. We continued to “float back” to various events and situations until we were well into childhood. We were encouraged to stay with the feelings and sensations and not overthink the connection between events. Once we got to the earliest event or memory we could think of, that connected to these sensations, we revisited the image, self belief, emotions and body sensation to see what fit with that early memory. I was surprised to find a connection between my most recent memory and an early childhood memory of watching a Christian “end times horror movie” around the age of 3 or 4, one that had given me anxiety and nightmares for many years afterwards. This was the memory that we were going to work with.
For me, I had the image of a small child, alone in a dark room in front of a giant screen (i wasn’t actually alone at the time, and I don’t know how big the screen was, but this image represented how I remember and feel about that event, today). The self belief I had, in relation to that memory, was that everyone was going to die and go to hell and that I was responsible to save them. The body sensation was similar to the one I’d felt in the most recent situation but the emotions were primarily fear.
We then commenced with the eye movements, doing 30 second sets and then checking in on any changes to the image, emotions, self belief or bodily sensations between each set. My image shifted to a little girl curled up in bed. My emotions with that image were sadness for that little girl who’d had so much stress and anxiety through those years. I became tearful.
My emotions had shifted from ‘being’ the scared little girl to having compassion for that little girl.
My self belief shifted more slowly, from being responsible to save all of humanity to recognizing that I’m not responsible to save everyone, and believing that I just needed to guard myself against feeling too much. It then shifted to remembering that my beliefs about hell and damnation had changed and that I didn’t actually believe that this was something that humanity was literally at risk of, in the way I’d previously thought. This meant that the danger was not real and I could be free of that responsibility. As a result of this belief, by emotions shifted to relief and even a sense of elation at the freedom from this responsibility. We were encouraged to physically enact any movement that felt important to the release process. I felt I had to wave away these old beliefs.
As we continued into processing the new, positive beliefs, the image changed again into a children’s picture book, with the story of the movie in it. I saw myself holding that storybook, as an adult and putting it back onto a book shelf. It was a story. A fictional story. Not a true story with myself as the tortured hero, doomed to fail, carrying the weight of the world.
I was an adult, who had read that story as a child and could now see what it was and put it away.
I was stunned. I consider myself a fairly skeptical person, with a healthy dose of curiosity, (despite my early childhood whole hearted adoption of a fairly far fetched doctrine:) and really didn’t think that I would experience a whole lot of emotion or change in this “practice session.” I had actually recently re-watched that film, after going through some childhood journals, and felt that I had processed some of the fear I’d had about it. I figured this was old stuff that had little impact on me now. But I felt genuinely lighter. I felt like I had a genuine shift in self perspective in a way that couldn’t happen by just stating my new beliefs about my responsibilities to humanity.
I’ve heard many people say, myself included, that we know something to be true but that it doesn’t feel true. We tend to continue to act in ways that support what we feel to be true, even when we know it’s not.
In this process I came to fully understand that my memories and beliefs were not only thoughts or images but also emotions and bodily sensations and that all of these needed to be processed in order for true change and healing to happen. It was not enough to believe something with my head, I have to feel it to really know it.
For more on EMDR:
Check out Dr. Andrew Leeds vide on “Why EMDR works.”
Check out this video by Pooky Knightsmith, “3 Things I wish I’d known before I started trauma therapy” (Spoiler, they are 1. She wishes she’d known it would work. 2. She wishes she’d known things would get worse before they got better and 3. She wishes that she’d known she didn’t have to talk about all of her trauma in the therapy.
Also check out my previous posts on trauma…