When healing a painful past event requires more than talking it out, EMDR is there to help
Intrusive memories: they can happen to all of us. You think that you’re over your parents’ divorce from over 20 years ago, but every now and then, and completely out of nowhere, you get that uninvited memory flash. Just like that, you’re transported to that space, that feeling, that discomfort of being trapped at home, the sound of your parents arguing loudly in the background. It could be anything that triggers it, the smell of what was cooking at the time it happened, the sound of the tea kettle whistling, a tap on the shoulder.
Whatever it is, it’s brought you back to that moment that you have tried to compartmentalize at the back of your mind and keep safely, tidely, packed away. The worst part is that you have no control over when these memories decide to show up or how you’ll feel when they do decide to drop-in.
Sometimes Trauma Isn’t What You Think…
Maybe you never considered your parents’ divorce as a trauma. After all, it was so long ago and you worked through it, right? Perhaps the intrusive memory you have is more of an isolated incident, such as a car accident or a loved one passing away. You may not consider it to be trauma, but rather an uncomfortable or painful memory. However you relate to it, it is impacting you, and you want help. Maybe you’ve actually sought out guidance for this matter before, but it didn’t go anywhere or you felt that the experience you were trying to work through was still unresolved. Perhaps when you’ve tried talking to a professional about it, you’re not even sure how to put what you experienced into words.
So many individuals have felt this way and have made huge strides toward healing through the therapy treatment, EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing). EMDR is an evidence-based therapeutic approach facilitated by trained EMDR therapists to assist you in reprocessing challenging past events so you can have control over the memory and the memory will not have control over you.
How it works
You have probably heard of our bodies’ natural fight or flight protective feature built into our nervous system which is triggered when our body senses that it is under threat. This is a healthy response for your body when you are in danger, but what about when you’re taking your dog on a walk, not under any looming threat (other than the mounting frustration of having your dog sniff yet another bush after he’s sniffed at least 50)? You get hit by another one of those memories of your mom and dad yelling and all of a sudden your nervous system is on overdrive. Your brain has you fooled into thinking that you are going through the trauma of being a little kid, feeling like there’s no way out all over again rather than just remembering it.
This is where EMDR comes in. According to the EMDR National Association, the trained practitioner guides you in reprocessing the event so that the “experience is still remembered, but the fight, flight, or freeze response from the original event is resolved”.
What does the actual treatment of EMDR look like?
After the EMDR therapist has reviewed your history, the therapist guides you in identifying which target memory you would like to address in the treatment as well as what negative beliefs are associated with your experience of your parent conflict from childhood. For instance, the negative belief may be that you caused your parents to be unhappy, that you don’t deserve love, etc. Then, the therapist assists you with thinking about what positive belief would mark that your issue is resolved, such as “I am worthy of love”; “My parents didn’t get along and that is not my fault”.
You might be wondering, “What about the ‘eye movement’ part of Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing?”. Great question! While reviewing your target memory of your parents arguing, the therapist provides bilateral stimulation usually to the eyes (but can also be through tactile or auditory) by having you follow their finger from one side to the other. This provides you with the ability to stay in the present moment by giving you something to focus in on while working through the event in a safe, controlled environment with the therapist. There is little dialogue needed so there can be extra comfort provided in not having to go into detail if you’ve found your target memory difficult to articulate. In undergoing EMDR treatment, you are given the space to finally process: something that was not possible when the event occurred and a necessary step to allow the brain the opportunity to heal.
Sessions are typically 60-90 minutes and EMDR may be utilized during standard talking therapy, alongside therapeutic treatment with a separate therapist, or a treatment in and of itself.
Who can benefit from EMDR?
EMDR can help children and adults of all ages. Some of the common symptoms that EMDR has been proven to help relieve are those associated with anxiety, PTSD, depression, chronic illness, pain, grief and loss, domestic violence, eating disorders, and substance abuse, to list a few.
Does EMDR sound like it might be beneficial to you and your healing process? At Explore What’s Next Kate Keating Maleski LCSW-R is trained in this specialized practice. If you’re not sure if EMDR would be helpful, but you would like to know more, please reach out to ask us questions! It can be valuable to explore options when thinking about your journey toward healing and, what’s more, you are so worthy.
Written by: Kaylee Falcon
Kaylee Falcon is an Associate MFT, School Based Art Therapist in the Los Angeles area. When she isn’t working with amazing neurodiverse youth, she can be found crafting ceramics and needle-felted puppets. Kaylee is also a very big fan of practicing self-care via streaming shows with her partner, Chris, and cute pups, Westley and Peanut (the ferocious chihuahua).
This is a great article, Kaylee. EMDR is still new to a lot of people. This piece helps us understand what a powerful tool EMDR can be in recovery from past trauma. Thank you!
Thank you so much, Dr. Aletta! I learned so much in doing the research for this piece. What an amazing treatment modality EMDR is and how great that you have it offered at Explore What’s Next! 🙂
Thanks for sharing this new therapy with us.
You’re very welcome, Steve. If you have any questions about EMDR we hope you will feel free to ask here in the comments.
Thank you for explaining a new therapeutic tool for dealing with trauma. EMDR appears to be a noninvasive treatment that can help people heal from past experiences in a successful way. I’m curious to find out if this technique will help people address trauma from their COVID-19 experiences once everyone goes back to their somewhat normal routines.Thank you for sharing your expertise through this article.
Thank you for your question, Lisa. Yes, EMDR is a therapeutic approach that can process trauma caused by COVID-19 and helps to alleviate symptoms. I would be happy to talk with you more about how this treatment can be successful for you if you would like to contact me directly. Thank you!
Thank you for reading, Lisa, and for contributing this wonderful question!
EMDR can be a useful therapeutic treatment for previous trauma (even from your earliest memories) to recent experiences as well. With that in mind, I think EMDR certainly will be beneficial for those who need assistance with processing challenges experienced during this pandemic.