What is EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) Therapy?
When you can't make change happen on your own, EMDR therapy is essential for trauma interventions
Imagine you're on vacation - it's the first day so all the eager anticipation is there at the tip of your fingers. You, your spouse and two kids have landed at Newark Airport and hail your cab to take you to your midtown hotel in Manhattan. It's a humid July day and the kids have already begun to wilt not yet 10 minutes outside of air conditioning. You laugh softly to yourself in recognition of their lack of sturdiness.
You take charge and find a minivan cab to fit all the luggage and baseball gear. NYC is the prequel to the family vacation to Cooperstown for your 13-year old son's travel baseball team tournament; set to begin in five days. It's been a while since you've been to the Big Apple, and you're excited to get to a restaurant tonight you remember fondly from the last trip. You also really enjoy traveling with your kids, teaching them the history of different places and customs; you have an ambitious itinerary mapped out reflecting that.
Catching glimpses of the city skyline from the Jersey side, your kids begin to show interest and you begin to notice erratic driving from the cab driver. Casually you mention to your husband a memory of a previous erratic driver while on vacation in Florida; a near-death experience eerily similar to this. Moments later, from your seat in the third row with your 9-year old daughter, you notice the stopped traffic on the bridge, and the driver is not slowing down. ‘Of course he sees it' you think to yourself — but in fact, he saw it too late.
The driver hopelessly swerves to avoid the inevitable collision and hits the car in front of you at an angle, also pushing you into the concrete median, almost into oncoming traffic. Immediately you begin to yell at the driver. Your kids have no injuries — how is that possible? Other than shock from the impact itself, they are fine physically. Your husband says he's all right, but you have hit your head — hard — on the seat belt anchor attached to the top of the window to your left. You do not lose consciousness; in fact, you seem to have all senses on heightened alert.
While rubbing your head you fight with the driver and place the call to the state troopers yourself. He has no intention of reporting this at all, which is interesting because the car is no longer operable. Despite the tingling in your left arm you and your husband decide your head trauma is not bad enough to warrant a trip to the hospital in an ambulance and you finally make your way to the hotel, in an Uber this time.
It's almost time for dinner, the great Mediterranean place you've been looking forward to, but this headache won't go away. You lay down for 30 minutes with ice on the growing knot in the back of your head. Dinner was every bit of wonderful you expected and the kids have been properly impressed with the city thus far.
The next morning you still have the headache but ignore it - you're pretty tough and there's a lot to see today. The first stop is Rockefeller Center where the elevator ride on the way to the top nearly flattens you out. Severe nausea, vertigo, overwhelming sound sensitivity, and bright light sensitivity come on like a jolt. You finally do go to the doctor, are diagnosed with a concussion and leave with instructions to avoid pretty much all stimuli, especially bright lights or excessive sound. Remember, you are in New York, so those instructions are impossible.
While salvaging the rest of the itinerary as best you can, you have to take another cab to get across town and you don't realize it until you get the seatbelt buckled that you're nervous. So nervous in fact you're either holding your breath or hyperventilating, you're not sure which. Worse, when it's time for the second leg of the trip, the three-hour rental car to Cooperstown, you quietly sob in the car for the duration as your husband drives.
That was my traumatic experience in the summer of 2018.
How EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) works
I am a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in California, where I specialize in trauma, and it took me almost 24 hours before I would admit to myself I was traumatized. Trauma is a visceral and irrational experience, taking our logical mind and eliminating all reason.
Try as we may, after a traumatic experience, we cannot get ourselves to believe that we are safe, even when we logically know we will be ok. Even though I knew my husband was a safe driver, my mind would not allow me to stand down from the hyperarousal for harm. I then began what would become a 7-month recovery before the concussion remitted medically.
In addition to the myriad medical interventions, a major part of that recovery was therapy, specifically EMDR therapy. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing "is an integrative psychotherapy approach that has been extensively researched and used to resolve many issues….It is an empirically supported treatment for acute and chronic posttraumatic stress disorder." Recognized by the World Health Organization, US Department of Defense, and American Psychiatric Association to name a few, EMDR is the holy grail for traumatic interventions.
If you've ever baked, think of trauma as though you were making dough, but before it was finished you tore off a piece from the mother dough and kept it separate and on a hamster wheel stuck in constant motion. Such is trauma.
Traumas are large, debilitating experiences such as combat, sexual assault/abuse, natural disasters and terrorism. They are also small traumas rendered through medical surgeries, car accidents and interpersonal relationships, etc. The range is as varied as our humanity.
Several criteria are required for a trauma to be diagnosed as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, including direct exposure as a victim or witness to a trauma, intrusive thoughts of the event, flashbacks, nightmares, physical and/or emotional reactivity to the event or memory of the event and avoidance of the trauma-related memory or exposure. The effect on your life is profound and long term if not dealt with. I couldn't avoid the rental car portion of my family vacation unless I intended to seriously derail the logistics of the trip, but the thought of a train appeased my trauma.
EMDR is special for two reasons, it works and it works quickly. By mimicking the way the brain naturally processes information it allows the brain to do its thing naturally with the help of some skilled guidance by the therapist. Heavily imagery-based, EMDR utilizes a client's own memories, images and feelings to heal the trauma.
Starting with the resource installation phase, the therapist guides clients to identify a safe place, a nurturing figure, protective figure and wise entity to help clients should they become stuck in processing or flooded with emotion during the desensitization phase, where the nitty-gritty work is accomplished.
What happens during an EMDR session
During an EMDR session, clients are encouraged to allow a stream of consciousness to guide them during the bilateral stimulation, reporting back at regular intervals when the therapist stops the bilateral stimulation and asks, "What came up?" The resources do not need to be real figures or even human at all, but the images, memories, and feelings that come up in desensitization are very real, even if they manifest in symbol. It is a powerful and safe way to consolidate traumatic memories so the brain can move on, back to a normal baseline.
I have clients begin therapy barely able to stop crying who leave upon their last EMDR session giddy with the weight relieved from their emotional baggage.
When I underwent EMDR for the car accident it was with the goal to be able to feel safe in the car again. The mother of two, with a small commute to work, I am in the car a lot. In regular talk therapy working on this trauma could take 6-12 months. I had resolved my fear of the car in 4 EMDR sessions. After the first session, the headaches began to change as well, becoming less severe.
EMDR inspires change
Making the choice to get help takes courage and sometimes acceptance that you are beyond your own grit. Therapy can feel vulnerable to some who are not used to talking about their intimate feelings but it's through exploring the vulnerability in our feelings that we can change.
EMDR is a neurological mechanism to change the emotional and physical symptoms of distress. Changing the relationship with the distress makes a difference not only in the client's life, but that of their immediate circle as well; a ripple effect of improvements such as seen in my kids who could relax in the car when I was relaxed, and who didn't have the added stress of a parent who was dysfunctional due to trauma.
Change allows us to move onto the next stage of our development, a required task across our lifespan. EMDR is a powerful yet simple and safe technique to foster change when people feel unable to help themselves. I trusted EMDR to see me through the car accident and will trust it again whenever the next issue arises.