Eye Movement Desensitising and Reprocessing - EMDR
Nobody knows exactly how EMDR works. But what we do know is that it does work for many people. It works to desensitise difficult or painful memories from the past, in order that they no longer bother us in the present. That is the essence of EMDR.
But I will explain very briefly how it looks in practice.
How it looks in practice
When something traumatic happens to our system – either something far too big, or something more developmental, at the moment in time of the event or experience our brain automatically goes into a trauma response.
When we are in a trauma response, our left brain (our thinking, logical, rational brain) is automatically shut down; we can’t help it, it just happens. This shutting down of the left-brain is in part responsible for the traumatic event or experience to become stuck in the right brain - the left brain was not available to help process it.
When we do EMDR, we find the target - the unmetabolized event or experience, that is stuck in the past, stuck in the right brain, and we stimulate both sides of the brain whilst we have the event or experience in mind. In order to stimulate both sides of the brain, one after the other – alternately - we can do anything that works really. When EMDR began to be used in clinical practice, the therapist would move their finger left to right in front of the client, asking the client to follow their finger with their eyes, and as they did so the event could be processed.
By activating both sides of the brain, whilst back at the memory that is stuck, we are in a sense inviting the left brain to come into the memory and help process that memory through.
And this really works. It really does. Many people have said to me “it can’t possibly be”, and then they do the EMDR, the intensity of emotions around the past event reduces, and then they say “wow” – and they go and tell their friends.
I must express some caution at this stage however – please do not do EMDR on your own. Whilst the theory and practice is able to be explained in a relatively simple way, processing our trauma is difficult and emotional work. It is very, very difficult to do it alone, and in some cases might even be re-traumatising. Many of us have unresolved trauma because of a lack of support at the time; therefore, to try to heal without support can feel pretty similar to the trauma itself. Please do find support with this work – and any trauma work.
How EMDR was discovered
Francine Shapiro, who is the brain-child of EMDR, refers to her initial discovery of eye movements being used to desensitise old memories as a “chance discovery”. She was out walking one day in 1987, when she realised that her anxiety around certain thoughts was reducing; she would bring in a thought that provoked anxiety, walk some more, and the anxiety would leave her. As she pondered why this was happening, she realised her eyes were moving back and forth as well – and that each time she intentionally moved her eyes back and forth that her anxiety was reducing, and remaining reduced.
She was a clinical psychologist at the time, and she practiced what she had found on friends and colleagues – and thus EMDR was born.
Despite EMDR being discovered through the use of eye movements, we now know that consciously activating eye movements themselves isn’t strictly necessary. Francine Shapiro worked out pretty quickly that we don’t have the muscle control to move our eyes by ourselves from left to right repeatedly over a period of time, so she would move her finger from left to right in front of the person with the disturbing memory, asking them to follow her finger. This worked very well, and this was the tool used for a long time with EMDR, but since then it has been found that there are other ways of activating the left-right brain alternately.
In fact, it has been found that actually pretty much anything works to achieve the left-right mechanism in the brain and these can include tapping alternately on knees, tapping alternately on shoulders or arms, watching a light bar move from left to right, holding vibrating pulsers in our hands as we process – the list is possibly endless, so long as there is an alternate left-right action occurring. We call this bi-lateral stimulation (BLS), and we get to choose whichever method we are most comfortable with. And of course therapists no longer have repetitive strain injury.
EMDR and Big T trauma
I am writing this almost a year into a global pandemic, and in the past seven months I, along with many other EMDR therapists, have worked with clients who have felt traumatised by their experience of suffering from Covid-19 themselves. For many people this has been a Big T Trauma. Having more or less recovered physically, they were still left with nightmares around not being able to breathe, hearing sirens, memories of lying in bed in pain, not able to move, endless coughing, waiting for an ambulance that didn’t arrive, properly feeling that they were going to die; in other words, they have PTSD as a result of their covid-19 experience: these memories and feelings were still occurring even after they had made a good physical recovery. We used EMDR in the sessions, and the nightmares have now stopped, the vivid memory recall of the time has disappeared – if it is recalled it is now with a sense of calm – and because all of the panic, fear, dread and any other horrible emotions in their system have been processed, they are now fully ensconced in the belief “I survived”. They no longer have PTSD from their horrific Covid-19 experience. The horrible feelings around the experience are no longer in their system.
And we can use EMDR for pretty much any past experience that is still haunting us in today, if we feel as though it resonates with us as a healing modality.
EMDR and developmental trauma
The example of how EMDR works, above, was described using what we call a “single incident trauma”. This is any horrible event or experience whereby we are still experiencing the effects of it emotionally in the present, and we want to process it so that we no longer feel its impact. PTSD is a good example of how a single incident trauma manifests in us if we did not manage to process the event or experience at the time.
When we use EMDR for developmental trauma, however, there is more of a web of complexity in the body and the brain, consisting of unprocessed emotions, negative belief systems, inability to self-regulate or self-soothe, self-protective layers in place, and parts of our younger psyche that are in some serious emotional bother.
This is beginning to be realised and understood as Complex PTSD (C-PTSD). All this means is that there is not just one single incident trauma, but many incidents smaller in their obvious form – but which are very often much bigger in their presentation in our adult lives. I honestly do now believe that most humans have C-PTSD.
The role of the therapist
The role of the therapist is key during this type of work. Yes, the mechanics are straightforward to explain, and our bodies pretty much know how to self-heal when we are pointed in the right direction, but our inner systems are not “simple”. Even as a highly trained therapist, and receiver of EMDR as a therapy for myself for some years now, I cannot successfully perform EMDR on myself in the same way as when I am with a therapist.
Trauma is not a joke and EMDR is not a party trick; EMDR can be however, a transformative therapeutic technique that can help us to heal our trauma, when it is performed by a trained therapist.
EMDR is also not something that is “done to us”. It is not the same, for example, as receiving a healing whilst we are lying gently with our eyes closed. I practice Reiki and Reconnecitve Healing and for this the client lies horizontal and receives a healing; it is absolutely lovely, and very healing, but this is not the same as EMDR. EMDR is a therapeutic process, with a targeted memory, that we fully participate in. We need to be wholly involved in the felt experience, in order that we can move through it.
When we have unresolved trauma, or we have suffered from events and experiences that are generally viewed as traumatic and we were not able to process them at the time, this is because the wounds, the memories of the events and experiences, really hurt emotionally. We need someone to take us through this who can hold an enormous space for us, who truly understands how EMDR works, who is not afraid of our emotions – however overwhelming they might feel – and who truly understands what it takes for a client to feel safe, and how to keep us safe during the processing of our traumatic memories.
Very often too, a seemingly straightforward single-incident trauma will have triggered some of our childhood trauma. This again requires a skilled therapist to work out what is what, and which needs processing first, in order to keep the session contained, manageable and safe.
Let’s think back to all of the self-harming behaviours and negative thought patterns that we believe are the only way we can function: they are protecting us from feeling the pain of very deep unresolved trauma from the past. They are helping us to feel safe.
Therefore, if we want to heal this trauma, we need to feel safe enough to do so, or at least safe enough to begin the process. Part of this sense of safety can come from our support structure in life, but another part – an essential part – will come from the role of the therapist. I certainly wouldn’t want to process my unresolved trauma from the past – most likely also riddled with shame – with someone who I didn’t feel could unconditionally love me for exactly who I was and where I was in my healing process. And this is most likely found with a trauma therapist – or a truly exceptional support system (which of course can and does exist for some people).
Another part of our developmental trauma may very well have been – most probably will have been – that we did not properly feel “seen” for who we truly were and how much we were suffering, at the time. If we had been fully recognised for who we were as an individual, we might not have the residual trauma. Therefore the presence of therapist, who can witness our story whilst we process painful and uncomfortable feelings, is again of the utmost importance.
We also, most probably, lacked enough co-regulation at a young age with our caregivers, and this will have impacted our ability to self-regulate our own emotions, and consequently self-regulate and soothe ourselves internally as an adult. A therapist will assist us with that co-regulation, by helping us to regulate with them, the therapist, and this is also a very important part of the healing process.
Different healing modalities
There are so many amazing healing modalities out there. I personally have experience of EMDR, Kundalini Yoga, Meditation, Breathwork, Psychotherapy, Meditation, Reiki, Reconnective Healing, Analytical Hypnotherapy and Family Constellations. And there are many more too, Somatic Experiencing for one.
And we choose whichever method we like. We choose what resonates with us. We choose what feels soft, what feels safe, what resonates with our gut, or what feels like it’s going to do the job and provide us some resolution. And we choose the person helping with the healing by who we resonate with or like; this is so important.
There might be times in our healing journey where we are called to a different modality, a different course, a different therapy. Do it! Why not! And for those who would like to know a little more about EMDR, which is my preferred as I have said, do read on.
Differing types of EMDR
Since Francine Schapiro’s “chance discovery” in the 1980s, EMDR has been refined and expanded in its method and uses.
The term Attachment-Focussed EMDR has been widely used in the EMDR community for some years, including for example by one of Francine Schapiro’s closest collaborators Deany Laliotis in the US. Attachment-Focussed EMDR is a description first coined by Dan Siegel, and subsequently adopted as her signature approach by Dr. Laurel Parnell in her trainings and books.
Working closely with Dr Parnell through the latter part of 2010, UK-based EMDR Consultant Mark Brayne combined Dr Parnell’s attachment-focussed ideas with this knowledge and experience of transpersonal therapy, to create a deeper dive into the core our of our wounding. Brayne also developed and further defined and attachment-informed approach to standard EMDR which is able to target and process intergenerational trauma in a way not previously attempted by other EMDR protocols. This was the approach used in the case studies in chapter 5.
Beginning the Process
Peaceful Place and Resource Team
As mentioned before, the first rule of EMDR – and any trauma healing – is the notion of safety. So the first thing we do, along with briefly telling our history through a trauma lens, with our therapist helping us, is that we create a peaceful place and a resource team.
Firstly, we find a place in our imagination where we feel peaceful. It can be real, or imagined, it doesn’t matter, but somewhere we can go to in our mind, where we feel a sense of peace. We might choose a favourite beach, or a hilltop that we love, or a wood, or a meadow – the list is limitless; the most important thing is that when we think of it we can get that sense of peace.
And we tap this peaceful place in, using bi-lateral stimulation (BLS) – just like we do for processing the trauma. BLS used with lovely feelings can help those lovely feelings feel even more present and embedded.
Next we think about our resource team. Ideally we want a mix of nurturing figures, protector figures, and a wisdom figure. We can have a magical figure too if we want. The most important thing is that we choose what works for us.
The nurturers. It can be helpful to think of the qualities of care, compassion, warmth and unconditional love for the nurturing types. They can be real or imagined, animals or people – and we can include an inanimate object if it is especially meaningful for us. Let’s start with three. Sometimes it can be hard to think of nurturing types, especially if we have a lot of developmental trauma; because we probably didn’t get much of full enough experience of nurture when we were growing up and we probably are not that familiar with how it feels. But you know what, we actually all can find something, or some body, where we can connect – even if only a little bit – with that sense of nurture. Sometimes it’s someone we know in our life, or we have known because they are no longer with us; or it might be an archetypally nurturing animal like a dolphin or a kangaroo with its baby. Some people only want to choose animals for nurturers because humans have historically always let them down. And this is fine! Once we have our nurturers, we tap each of them in, using BLS.
The protectors. This time we want to think of physical protection so it might be helpful if these figures have a strength to them. Again, they can be real or imagined, animal or human, or an inanimate object if preferred. But they want to give us a sense of protection that we connect with. We might choose a lion – or we might choose Mike Tyson. Or we might choose an angel with enormous wings! It is absolutely up to us what we choose. And we tap in the protectors with the BLS.
And wisdom. One wisdom figure is usually enough, but we can have more if we like. Again, this can be an animal, or a human, or something completely make-believe. If it personifies wisdom for us then let’s use it. Sometimes it is a wise granny, or friend; other times it might be something archetypally wise like Buddha, the Dalai Lama, or God or Jesus. Or it could be a tree, or an owl, or a book! Whatever evokes that sense of wisdom in us will do the job. And we tap this in with the BLS.
So here is our team. Our resource team. It can be lovely too, to imagine our peaceful place, tapping in that sense of peace, and inviting each member of the team to join, and then tapping all of the team in together, as a whole team.
To feel even more grounded as we tap in our team, we might want to really notice our sit bones on the chair that we are sitting on, imagining we are being held by the earth; perhaps we can imagine roots going down into the earth’s core from our body where it hits the earth. There are lots of grounding exercises that we can do.
It might take a while to get a team in place. If we were seriously lacking in those 4Ss when we were little, for example, we are probably going to have had a life where we didn’t feel a tremendous amount of care, compassion, warmth, or unconditional love – or protection, or even perhaps wisdom, and in some cases we might not have experienced any at all. That’s ok.
I was working with a client once, who was struggling to think of anything that she resonated on either a nurturing or protecting level, and then she suddenly remembered a Netflix series she was watching, where the mum just looked lovely and she realised she would have loved to have had that fictious mother as her own mother. So the mother from the Netflix series became one of her nurturers – she called her the “Ideal mother”.
Sometimes people opt for archetypally nurturing figures if they can’t find anything that feels personal to them. The whole of this exercise, this building of the resource team is incredibly personal. Sometimes people choose their therapist to be on the team. Another client chose a teapot because her tea ritual was so important to her. It’s all about what resonates with us, on those nurturing, protecting and wisdom levels, that counts.
If we can, we want to have a “felt sense” of what that resource member is representing. A felt sense of nurture when we think of our nurturers, a felt sense of protection, and a felt sense of wisdom. We can gather them all together in our mind’s eye, with our peaceful place too if we like, and we can tap them in as a whole team.
Many clients use their resource team outside of the session too. Perhaps they are in a difficult situation in their lives; they might think “what would my wisdom figure say here”, or “what would my nurturer do here”. It can be a really lovely and really useful life-tool.
I truly believe that we all have our essence, our true Self, firmly embedded in our core. I believe that this Self is unbreakable and undamagable, but the reason we can’t connect with it in the way that we would like is because we have built layers and layers of protection around it, throughout our lives. When we find our resource team, we are also finding those nurturing, protecting and wise parts of ourselves that we might feel we have lost. They are inside us, they never went anywhere, we just feel like they did. Sometimes connecting with something external that has these qualities can help us resonate with out own, internal sense of Self. Sometimes people might choose to have their pure Self on their team. This is lovely too if we can do it – but sometimes we need extra help before this true Self emerges in the work, and that is ok too.
As we use EMDR, these layers of protection that we have built up, come gently tumbling down, and we re-connect with our core Self.
Once we have our team in place, and we have given mention of most of our trauma history, we can gently begin to choose targets for processing.
Finding a target
As we now know, when we are processing past hurts with EMDR, we are getting events and experiences from the past to a place where they no longer carry an emotional charge inside us when we think about them. The next step therefore is to find a target for processing.
There are many routes in to processing past, unhealed material with EMDR. Three of the most straightforward are 1) targeting the explicit memories (those we remember), 2) targeting the implicit memories (the ones we don’t remember but we feel triggered into in our daily lives) and 3) working with the negative beliefs themselves (which will take us to the implicit memory we need to process).
Explicit memories are events or experiences from the past, where when we think of them now, in today, we still feel an emotional charge of some sort. This might be anger, fear, panic, shame, guilt – or of course all of those.
Implicit memories are events or experiences from the past that we don’t necessarily remember cognitively, or consciously. But they are there. And our bodies remember them. If we can’t remember anything traumatic from the past, yet we experience trauma symptoms, then we are probably looking at implicit memories that we have either “intentionally” forgotten in order to keep ourselves protected, or that are implicit in terms of being a felt experience that wasn’t completely metabolised at the time, that we have tried to anaesathitise with an external soothing or safety mechanism. This will most probably be something that occureed with a degree of regularity in our childhoods; very often including the absence of those 4 Ss that I have talked about in this book.
We might start processing explicit memories, or we might need to start by finding the implicit memories – everyone is different; one of the roles of the therapist is to decide together with the client which targets to process and in what order.
It still astonishes me today, after some years of using EMDR how powerful it can be.
During a session, we are going back and revisiting the stuck trauma, the stuck feelings, the stuck memory, allowing the left-brain to finally come in and make sense of the event – as in our ideal world it should have done so at the time – thus emotionally processing it completely, and leaving it in the past as a processed event with zero emotional charge.
Some people might want to process some Big T events that they know are bothering them, and that are evidently explicit memories. So we do that.
Other people don’t really have much Big T, but instead have realised, slowly and over time, that they are triggered by life – sometimes occasionally, sometimes All The Time.
To find a target for the implicit memories, we use the “drop back in time” exercise from Chapter Two. We choose our triggering memory, our troubling feeling, or our negative belief, we find the exact moment in the present that is being triggered, and we drop back in time from that spot.
When we are dropping back in time from a moment in a triggering memory, horrible feeling, or negative belief, the trauma network is already open, so the body takes us right back to that unresolved event or experience from the past.
At the end of the processing of whichever target we are working on, we will have experienced wonderful shifts. The initial difficult emotions we felt around that event will have changed into something more positive, and our thoughts and beliefs about ourselves will have shifted to something more positive too. Once this is complete, we use BLS to strengthen the new positive feelings and beliefs around that memory. And then if we have been working on a trigger, horrible feeling or limiting belief, we lastly go back to check in on it. Usually it has changed; it might have a reduced charge, it might even have changed completely and disappeared. Sometimes we can’t even believe we had that feeling in the first place. I was working with Cosima this morning, who was feeling trapped at home with her children, in lockdown. She said “but it’s normal to feel trapped in lockdown, no?” I said let’s see. We dropped back in time from the feeling of trapped and found some childhood memories not yet processed. At the end of the session I said “how’s the feeling of trapped now?” Her response was “trapped? Did I feel trapped? Wow, I certainly don’t feel trapped anymore, it’s lovely and cosy at home with my children in lockdown!”
Material that we have worked on in the session will either have neutralised completely on an emotional level, or the emotions will have been massively reduced. The negative thoughts and beliefs will have changed into positive beliefs and thoughts too.
It is impossible to describe exactly how a session looks during the processing – because it is different for everyone, and often for each person every session is slightly different too; this would take an entire book in of itself.
But in essence, once we start the processing, the images, feelings and body sensations begin to change; this is all part of the process. By the end of the session, the event or experience is processed – if not completely, then a good amount. We continue processing a target until:
There is no longer a negative charge when we think of the event.
The negative belief that we started with has changed into a positive one.
The logic might sound simple, but this is hard, emotional work. It can sometimes be tiring, and it can sometimes feel emotionally difficult. We might have to process through fear, or terror, or panic, or shame, or deep grief, and we can sometimes feel pretty emotionally raw after a session. These emotions as they come can feel like waves – all the way from ripples to tidal waves. But we get through them. Remember, we shut down those memories, events and feelings because they were too overwhelming for us to deal with at the time. And if we are working on a younger target, we might feel, for a bit, the same age as we did in the memory we are working on. But we work through it and we release its grip on us in the present day. And then it’s gone.
One client, when I was asking her what she wanted from the sessions, said to me “I want to feel like I’m reading a book when I look at back stuff, instead of participating in a horror movie which is what it feels like now”. And I think she perfectly described how we do feel after the work; the memory itself doesn’t disappear, but the horrible feelings towards it do go; and with that, the frequency that we think about the past memory pretty much goes to zero too, simply because it’s not bothering us emotionally anymore.
We need to be as brave as we can be, and to be curious. We so often say to clients “let’s be curious”. Yes, it might be painful to have to go through those feelings, but if we are ready to do this, we are ready to face those feelings. And if we feel triggered by life, then our trauma is coming up – let’s get it.
Nobody has ever regretted doing this work that I know of.