By Megan Krause
Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) is a type of therapy that helps people heal from their past traumatic experiences. Experts believe that past traumatic experiences can continue to cause problems in our lives if we haven’t properly processed the memory of that experience.
What happens with an unprocessed memory? It contains all the negative emotions, thoughts and even the physical sensations that were present at the time of the event. When these memories are triggered, so are the negative elements of the initial event, causing symptoms of PTSD or other mental health disorders.
In EMDR, a specially trained therapist repeatedly stimulates the left and ride sides of your brain with rhythmic bilateral (left-right) stimulation (this could be taps, audio tones or small handheld buzzers). While clients simultaneously focus on the traumatic memory (also known as a “target”) and experience bilateral stimulation, the pain and distress of the memory are reduced.
Below, two women share their experiences with EMDR.
In 2016, Emily Shull suffered an emotional breakdown.
The 40-year-old recovering alcoholic was familiar with EMDR therapy due to her career in social work. But now, it was part of her own aftercare plan.
One heart-wrenching breakup and cross-country move later, Emily found herself in Lindstrom, Minnesota, depressed and contemplating suicide.
“I found my current therapist, Joy, on a suicide prevention website. I started seeing her to do EMDR for grief and trauma,” Emily explains.
First, Joy and Emily identified several EMDR targets. They went back through Emily’s life, noting all the events that got recorded in Emily’s brain as trauma. That took a few months. Then they began the EMDR work.
“When doing EMDR, we start with a particular event, a negative cognition, and what we want the cognition to be. I hold two tiny devices that vibrate, one in each hand—that’s the source of my bilateral stimulation. Joy asks me further questions about the event, while I observe my memories as if they are on a passing train.
“I’ll have physical responses to memories—I get hot, cold, goosebumps, restless and my throat gets tight. Sometimes I curl into the fetal position, and sometimes I am completely relaxed. I am rarely in distress from my observations, however. If I am, we stop and regroup.
“I love EMDR. It makes me feel free from my traumatic memories. Now, when I get triggered, I am able to manage them without sinking into a pit of despair.
“EMDR is saving my mental health the same way the 12-step fellowships saved my recovery. My therapist and EMDR have brought beauty and joy back into my life.”
Haley Browning, 27, has been doing EMDR for two years. Also a recovering alcoholic, the Colorado native credits the therapy with helping her process her past traumatic experiences and subsequently, finding freedom from them. She describes what an EMDR session is like.
“We start by choosing a memory to target. My trauma therapist begins by having me focus on her two fingers moving side to side. After about 30 seconds in, she asks me about the beginning of the memory.
“She has me explain the memory from beginning to end, posing detailed questions that really put me into that memory. As I answer her questions, I’ll soon realize that I had more of the memory hidden. I had pushed the memory into what I wanted, not what actually happened.
“In this way, I process what actually happened. I let her questions guide me. By the time my session is completed, I am more relaxed and living in the moment.
“This has been by far the best treatment I have had with dealing with my PTSD.”
If you want to do EMDR
Both women commented on the importance of finding the right therapist. “It has to be one you can trust and tell everything to,” Emily says. “EMDR is not re-traumatizing with the right therapist. If you are feeling like you are reliving your trauma, then you aren’t with the right person.”
If you’re suffering with PTSD, grief, abuse or similar trauma—the symptoms of which are known to contribute to drug and alcohol addiction—EMDR therapy might be for you.
People like Emily and Haley are reporting increased self-esteem, lowered stress and anxiety, and the release of pain and fear related to old ideas and memories.
In short, life is becoming beautiful for them again. You deserve such freedom, too.
Megan Krause is a recovered addict and freelance writer living an amazing, sober life in Phoenix, Arizona. Connect with her on LinkedIn.