I’ve been in therapy on and off for the past 4 years now. I’ve seen over 15 therapists all with different styles and treatment types. And it’s only at my most recent therapist that I’m actually starting to see large amounts of progress in a short amount of time. With her I do Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR).
Granted, she has it pretty easy compared to those who came before her. I was living in a constant anxiety attack (that lasted about 9 months) when I started seeing my first therapist/counselor. After seeing 2 I didn’t like, I finally found one that I clicked with. She actually introduced me to EMDR. I saw her regularly for about a year, but I wasn’t making the progress I wanted. I was still living in a panic attack for the majority of my day, everyday, but she did help me through the beginning of my grief. She ended up referring me to a CBT intensive outpatient program where I learned really important lessons about self-care, relationship communication skills, and about where anxiety comes from. However, even after that program I was still struggling with major anxiety on a daily basis, so I continued to seek new types of therapy. I was always drawn to EMDR though, because I found a huge sense of relief and release after every session. It was in that pseudo-hypnotic state that I was able to process my emotions, especially relating to the loss of my mom and my childhood.
When I started seeing my current therapist, I was in a much better place psychologically than I had been the previous 3 years. However, I was still bothered by anxiety throughout the day, especially in a variety of situations, such as hanging out with friends, going to the grocery store, and even going to work. I still was not in a good place if I’m being totally honest. But after only 5 sessions with her, I see a HUGE improvement. I’m in a place where my anxiety isn’t totally gone, but I can see the light at the end of the tunnel, and in many ways I’m better than ever, even before going through the trauma of losing my mom.
Childhood was actually somewhat traumatic for me due to the way I was raised and my personality type. I believe that childhood is actually somewhat traumatic for everyone, but like most things in life, it’s on a continuum that is caused by a variety of factors. My own childhood may not have been traumatic for someone else had they experienced it, but I’m a very sensitive person, and over the years I’ve accumulated a lot of anxieties. It wasn’t until my mom got sick that it got to a breaking point and I developed a serious anxiety disorder.
EMDR has gotten me to a place I never knew existed. I always thought I was just a certain way (quiet, shy, etc.) but it turns out I’ve been struggling with social anxiety disorder for most of my life. After reprocessing some childhood memories, I no longer fear many of the things I once did on an unconscious level. It’s crazy how well EMDR works for me, and I think if everyone tried it we would live in a much better and more peaceful world. But I find it INCREDIBLY HARD to get anyone to believe me to the point of trying it themselves. You just have to try it to believe it. The reason I push it so hard in my own personal life is because it just works so well and I feel so much better afterwards. I want my friends and family members to feel that way too! It even makes me angry that they refuse to try it because life is just so much better after EMDR. But I guess some people just like to live in the quiet misery that they are comfortable with. For me, I was beyond my breaking point and was no longer comfortable with the misery my anxiety caused me, which motivated me to try anything. And that was how I discovered EMDR.
I’m going to try my best to describe what EMDR is from my own personal experience, as well as link a video of what an EMDR session looks like here.
Before you start doing the actual EMDR, during your first session, you and your therapist decide upon a “safe space” and go over “grounding exercises” in case you get to a place in your mind that is too disturbing. I’ve actually never gotten to that point in therapy because personally I love releasing my emotions and I always feel better after I cry. I at least tear up a bit during every session, and sometimes I full on bawl. Either way, after every session with my current therapist, I’m never disappointed and feel lighter throughout the rest of the week.
Next, you tell your therapist about a hard time you had that week, about something that bothers you in your life, or about a traumatic experience that haunts you. In my case, it’s about my anxiety/panic attacks about 90% of the time, and the other 10% is about grief. Usually the two go hand in hand, as I’ve learned.
Next, your therapist will ask you what emotions you feel in your body and where you feel them when you think about the event. You’ll then be asked to describe an associated thought that comes with the situation/feeling, and usually the therapist will have a list of common negative thoughts people experience. You can choose from the list or choose your own. On the flip side, you’ll also choose a positive thought you would rather experience instead in that particular situation. Next, you’ll be asked to rate the intensity on a scale from 1-10 about how disturbing the situation is to you. You’ll then be asked to also rate how true the negative thought feels, and how true the positive thought feels.
Finally, it’s time to begin.
EMDR involves some sort of device that will allow for the alternating fast-paced use of your right and left brain, called bilateral stimulation. I have been to 3 different EMDR therapists, and the first two I went to used tappers that would vibrate in my hands from left to right. My current therapist informed me that the tappers can help for those who are perhaps visually impaired, but she uses a wand that she waves back and forth that I follow with my eyes because according to the latest research, the actual eye movement method is the quickest and most effective. While your eyes follow that movement, you will think about the disturbing event (i.e. a panic attack) and its associated thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations. If done correctly, the therapist will take breaks after around 30 seconds to ask you what has come up for you in terms of other thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations. It’s super weird what memories can sometimes come up. The point of going over these memories in therapy is so that you are in a safe place that allows you to reprocesses the disturbing memory or event at lightening speed in a space where you can feel your emotions rather than simply react the best way you know how. What might normally take years of therapy will now only take a few sessions or less. It sounds a little out there, and maybe it is. But all I can say is that it really helps me, and many people who have tried it.
So last but not least, I want to describe one of my personal sessions of EMDR, what we talked about, and its lasting effect:
I had been having a recurring nightmare that my mom was there to comfort and help me through a tough time, but had to leave before I felt like I had resolved the issue. Before my mom got sick, she was my biggest confidant. I would always tell her about my problems and she was always there to listen and sometimes just hold me. I’ve been left with a huge void in that department. I would wake up from these dreams feeling scared, confused, and upset. One night I even woke up and started crying because it was so disturbing to me. Another morning after waking up from that dream, I felt anxious the entire day after that dream and didn’t feel like talking to anyone at work. I had a big panic attack later that day too. I’d been sporadically having similar dreams with that theme of my mom abandoning me ever since she died, but these were the same dreams 3 nights in the same week, and they were causing me significant distress.
When it came time to rate my associated disturbance level with the nightmare, I told my therapist that it was around a 9 out of 10. When I thought about the nightmare, I felt sad, scared, angry, terrified, hurt, grief-stricken. The emotions were intense too. The associated thought that I felt most closely reflected the dream was “I am helpless,” and the thought I wanted to replace that with was, “I can handle it.”
We then started the EMDR. One of the first images that popped into my mind was my mom was dropping me off at preschool when I was 3 years old. I was very distraught. I didn’t want to be there. I didn’t want her to leave me. I felt abandoned, angry, sad, and confused. I had images of me holding onto my mom’s leg and crying because I didn’t want her to go. This was an event that I can still remember but would never have thought would still be affecting me 20 years later.
Then I got an image of her wearing this comfy fuzzy white sweater she always wore that brought me so much comfort. I was repeating, no, no, no! And really did not want her to leave. Then it flashed to another image of my mom saying, “I love you baby” and me saying, “I love you, Mommy,” and we were hugging. These types of images continued in my brain until I got to a point where my brain jumped to another issue in my personal life that is somewhat related, but it’s kind of complicated so I won’t go into details. Let’s just say I cried A LOT during that session.
So, my mom leaving me at preschool was actually really traumatic for me. It was a normal event for other kids that left me super terrified. Clearly I just wasn’t ready for it after spending everyday with my mom up to that point. When referring to a traumatic event, it doesn’t have to be something extreme. At different points in life and development, different situations can be traumatic, and it all depends on the person’s personality too.
So that was just one of my experiences with EMDR. At my next session, my therapist asked me to rate the same things that we rated previously, and I was down to a 2 rating from 1-10, which was a big jump from the 9. However, even though the memory of the nightmare is no longer disturbing for me, when I think of my mom in general I still feel a lot of grief and pain, which is why I couldn’t say my feelings were at a 0 or 1. So we still have some work to do in that area. However, I will say that it’s been 2 weeks and I haven’t had that nightmare ever since the session! Or any dreams about my mom abandoning me for that matter. So it was successful.
My general anxiety and social anxiety reduces after every session. All those memories of grief and loss are directly related to memories of perceived abandonment as a child. My sense of self has been strengthened by EMDR therapy and most importantly, so has my hope. EMDR has really helped me and I hope that by telling my story, others will want to try it too! It’s hard, emotional, work, and you sometimes feel exhausted afterwards, but it really does the trick.
If you want to try it out, you can use my previous post, 5 Tips for Finding a Good Therapist, to help find an EMDR therapist that suits you.