The Surprising Ways EMDR Therapy Affected Me
If you’ve experienced sexual abuse or assault, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact The National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.
The first time I had eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy, I peed my pants.
Yes, you read that right; I peed myself right there in the doctor’s office. Now one might think that is a treatment you would abandon quickly, but I chose to continue on despite this little surprise. Over the next 10 sessions, I had numerous spontaneous physical reactions. I kicked my therapist’s desk so hard I scared us both. I’ve experienced auditory and olfactory hallucinations of babies crying. The phantom smell of comet cleanser left ulcers in my nose. I also often smelled the peppermint car freshener that hung from the rearview mirror while I was being raped. None of these things were actually present. I’ve had such severe burning in my groin that I kicked off my underwear mid-session, and still needed to sit on an icy water bottle to stop the discomfort. Oh, and yes, I’ve vomited more than once. Now, you may be thinking, “Why the heck would anyone want to go through that?” Well here’s the short answer: EMDR quite literally saved my life.
For decades I lived with severe depressive episodes and panic disorder. The depression started around 15 years of age. The anxiety — I honestly cannot remember a time in my life when it wasn’t there. There are numerous reasons why people develop mental health issues including genetic predisposition, chronic illness, situational crises; nature, nurture, etc. I had all these, but the critical thing in my history was trauma, specifically complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD).
In the last 20 years, I read every self-help book on the shelf. I also did a lot of traditional psychotherapy — eight years, in fact. Hypnosis, naturopathy, acupuncture, vitamin supplements, exercise, colonics, vision boards, positive thinking and prayer — you name it, I tried it. Medications helped but I found their efficiency was brief and they never solved the issues lying beneath. So, I changed medication frequently, often augmenting one with another. Relief was short-lived at best.
When cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) and mindfulness meditation became mainstream treatments, I tried those as well. Behavioral therapies were great coping skills when I was within the “window of tolerance,” but for the most part I was so depressed I couldn’t function or so anxious I couldn’t think. Meditation was unbearable. Focusing on my breath literally triggered panic attacks. If I had generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), mindfulness probably would have helped me stay in the present. But, trauma survivors struggle to stay present in our bodies. It was triggering. And I was so dissociated, I didn’t even know I was dissociating.
So, what is EMDR?
EMDR is an acronym for eye movement desensitization and reprocessing. It has healed me more in 10 sessions than all other treatments combined. If you are wondering how it works, here goes: the therapist moves two fingers or a tactile object back and forth quickly, right to left. You follow with your eyes. This task is in about 30-second intervals. Then you are asked questions: “What is the negative though connected with this traumatic event (whatever you are working on)?” Then, “what are you feeling in your body?” Answers are given and scored one to 10. Then it begins again, back and forth, back and forth until your rating scores come down and the feelings dissipate. This process generally takes about 90 minutes from start to finish. Which event the patient wants to tackle each session is their choice, and oh boy, the stuff that comes up! I’ll be the first to admit it can bring up a lot, but for me, that was a better alternative to residing in fear.
How does EMDR work?
The opinions vary. The theory is that the rapid eye movement simulates REM sleep, which is where our memories of the day are processed during the night. It also explains why the process is so exhausting. Additionally, it is thought that left-to-right movements engage and stimulate the brain bilaterally. EMDR was created in 1989 by Dr. Francine Shapiro and despite being an American Psychiatry Association and Veterans Affairs-approved treatment for trauma, very few seem to know much about it. Many physicians and therapists are not trained in this methodology despite its efficiency. Additionally, it is also never used with clients in crisis. As you can imagine, this could be destabilizing in the wrong patient. One must have good grounding skills in place and a competent clinician for it to be safe.
As someone a significant trauma history, I have generally spent the duration of my life in fight or flight mode. Trauma anxiety is not a foreboding type of anxiety — fearing something that may never happen. In post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the worst case scenario has already happened. And in complex PTSD, it has happened repeatedly. We live our lives flooded with hormones and brain chemicals that are primitive with an innate purpose to be utilized for an instance of survival. One cannot live in this state without dire consequences to overall health.
My body, while in crisis mode, had been telling my story for years without me ever uttering a word. It told my story with bizarre rashes, fevers, tinnitus, migraine, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), high blood pressure, tachycardia and degenerative disease at 30 years old. My trauma had no place to go but inside, where it wreaked havoc. The more I swallowed it down, the sicker I became.
Finding EMDR allowed my body to tell my story in a constructive way. It focuses on bodily sensations and thought patterns without the emotional overload of recounting the explicit details of my traumas. All those things I spoke of in the beginning were my body’s equivalent of a flashback but without the fear. The kicking and punching and wanting to hide under her desk were either actions I took at the time of the trauma or a manifestation of a delayed reaction of what I wanted to do when I was being sexually abused, but at the time, I froze. Releasing those delayed action systems from my body allowed me to start recovering without reliving the shame and sorrow. It was empowering. It was effective. Most fabulously, it worked.
If you are struggling and living with unresolved trauma, please don’t give up. It’s taken me 30 years of struggling, and after just a few months of EMDR, I am on the road to healing. There is hope. Please inquire about EMDR in your area. Let your mind and body speak. Truly, I tell you, “We are only as sick as our secrets.” Reprocess them, feel them and let them leave. You are not your trauma. You are a freaking warrior!
Photo by Riccardo Fissore on Unsplash