If you suffer from the effects of childhood trauma and don’t feel you’re moving forward despite years of therapy, you may need a different approach. I felt stuck and thought maybe this was as good as it would get with my healing journey until I found EMDR.
My journey in recovering from childhood abuse and trauma started in 1985. This was the year I married my partner and felt safe enough in a relationship to look at my past.
The next 25 years I was in therapy off and on as issues came up in my life. The therapy I had during this time was talk therapy, either individual or group. This type of therapy was helpful and laid the foundation for EMDR.
Talk therapy helped me understand what I experienced as a child and how to look at it differently. It helped me process my emotions on a cognitive level. But it didn’t help me resolve the deep-seated subconscious emotions that could often derail my life. The anger, rage, depression, and fear came from a place that talk therapy could not reach.
My abuse started very early, before I had language. What I came to realize is when trauma occurs pre-verbally, it cannot fully be processed verbally. These traumatic memories were held in my body and subconscious. I couldn’t talk through something in therapy that was held in my body and my subconscious. That’s when I learned about EMDR.
EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing.
The process has several steps. First, a person brings up a traumatic memory or a troubling event in their present life. The severity is then measured on a scale from 1 to 10. Then the therapist asks, where do you feel it in your body? Next, the process begins with bilateral movement. My therapist had a machine with lights that moved back and forth, side to side. She also had earphones and pads to place in my ears and hands. I experienced the bilateral movement as visual, auditory and tactile, or kinetic movement.
After I recalled the distressing memory or present-day event, rated it, and did the bilateral movement, then we would pause and see what was coming up emotionally. My therapist would tell me to go with whatever came up, and we’d do the bilateral process again. After repeating the process a few times, we would go back to the 1 to 10 scale and measure my level of distress. Usually, the number had gone down. But if we wanted to bring it down more, we would do the process again.
It is believed the process is like REM sleep. During this period of sleep, it is believed the brain is processing the events of the day to clear them out to start fresh the next morning. However, if you are processing stressful memories in your sleep, it can turn into a nightmare. Rather than process that memory, a person usually wakes up from the nightmare. So, the memory does not get fully processed.
EMDR allows a person to process memories while awake. This creates a level of safety by going into the memory, but also remaining in the present moment. Processing this in an office with a therapist creates an even greater level of safety. This safety is present because you are in the present moment and with a safe person.
EMDR helped me the most by stopping the traumatic thoughts and emotions from looping around in my mind. Another name for this is ruminating. This is where a hurtful situation comes to mind and you just continue to think about it. You continue to think about the painful emotions repeatedly. Ruminating or looping makes it difficult to stop thinking about the memory or event.
Ruminating or looping is part of the healing process in the beginning. This becomes unhealthy when it interferes with your everyday life and you can’t turn it off. I still experience traumatic memories, but with EMDR I’m more able to stop ruminating about them.
Two things I learned in my experience with EMDR are that thoughts and feeling come up from a subconscious level, so it’s a very intuitive process. Trusting your own intuition is part of trusting yourself. But when a person experienced abuse as a child, it’s often difficult to trust ourselves. In doing EMDR, it was very important to trust whatever came up. I tried to not judge or censor it but to just accept it.
The other thing I learned with EMDR is that it is hard work and it left me exhausted. My appointments were usually in the morning and I tried to keep the rest of my day easy and not schedule too much. I found I needed to rest after a session.
I credit EMDR for the emotional stability I have today. While I’m not ”cured” from my childhood trauma, I can better handle my emotional difficulties.