If you, or somebody you know, are suffering from the negative symptoms of trauma and PTSD then EMDR therapy might be an option worth considering. The trouble is, most people don’t even know that this therapy exists. It’s not widely spoken about and, unless you’ve been through it, it can sound very strange, confusing or even scary.
I’m here to tell you that it doesn’t have to be this way! EMDR therapy isn’t your regular talking therapy, that’s for sure. But it’s really not that bizarre if you open your mind to it. Plus, reading EMDR experiences will show you that it really does work – time and time again.
This is my own personal EMDR experience – everything from finding the therapy, going through the therapy, and the aftereffects. I hope in sharing this that I can help to demystify EMDR and open up the minds of others to try a therapy that has completely transformed my life.
My Trauma Journey
From about the age of eleven I suffered with very strong and overwhelming emotions of low mood and anger. I was lonely, suicidal and dealt with my feelings with self-harm and destructive behaviours. I was probably not a very pleasant person to be around most of the time, but I felt like the whole world was against me.
At fifteen I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety and was put on an SSRI. From this age onwards I tried cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), psychodynamic psychotherapy, acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) and exposure therapy with six different therapists and little to no success. This left me feeling frustrated and let down and I despised those therapists for not doing their jobs – why weren’t they fixing me?
What I couldn’t see at the time was that I wasn’t the easiest of patients to work with, and sitting stubbornly in silence for an hour gave them no clue as to what was going on in my head.
It felt easier for me to displace the blame onto somebody else than to allow myself to think of things I’d been trying to desperately block out for years. I remember the headache and exhaustion I would leave those places with; I felt so misunderstood, alone and ashamed.
It felt easier for me to displace the blame onto somebody else than to allow myself to think of things I'd been trying to desperately block out for years. Click To Tweet
Fast forward six years and I was in my final year studying clinical psychology at university. During this year I was studying both counselling theory and psychodynamic theory and practice. I went in with the aim of these modules helping me to help others, but I didn’t know that they would unearth a lot within myself.
The theory I learned during this time made it clearer to me that I might actually be suffering with a form of personality disorder called borderline personality disorder, and C-PTSD as the result of childhood trauma.
The more I learned, the more and more came up. Each time a memory came up I would feel overwhelmed with emotion and I started experiencing panic attacks more frequently.
I felt so confused and ashamed and I was still not ready to accept what was going on in my mind. I knew that this wasn’t something I could talk about and that’s why therapy had never helped me in the past.
A gift from the universe
Coincidentally (or not… thanks universe!), despite my awful attendance at university during this period, I plucked up the courage to attend a lecture on an unknown topic one day.
When I arrived a guest lecturer was discussing her therapy of choice – eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy (EMDR).
I had never heard of this before in my life, but was intrigued to find out more. As she went on to speak I felt like she was talking directly to me.
This therapy sounded like everything I needed in this exact moment and I knew I had to try it.
What is EMDR?
If, like me, you had no idea that EMDR existed then I will try to give you the low-down.
When you experience a traumatic event you can be so overwhelmed that you cannot process it properly and it isn’t stored in the way a memory should be.
Instead, it is stored in a ‘raw’ form, which means that each time you think of the event you can experience all the negative things that you felt at the time of the event, with the same level of intensity. This is why people with PTSD experience flashbacks.
EMDR aims to alter the way these traumatic memories are stored within the brain, so that you can think of these memories in a more “logical” way and experience less distress when doing so – this is called processing.
To process a memory, clients recall traumatic events while receiving bilateral sensory stimulation. This is traditionally done with side to side eye movements, but new methods include hand tapping and auditory tones.
The EMDR Process
Finding an EMDR therapist
Before you take part in EMDR, it is important to find a therapist who is properly trained and accredited by the relevant association. If you embark on this journey without somebody who is adequately trained it could do more harm than good.
In the UK, EMDR is available on the NHS but you may be subject to long waiting lists… I decided that I had had no luck with the NHS in the past and I needed the help immediately so I was going to find a private therapist that worked for me.
To find a EMDR trained therapist in your area you can use the counselling directory or try a quick google search if you’re not in the UK. Once I found a few therapists that I liked the sound of I contacted them to find out if they had any availability and what their costings were.
Assessment for PTSD
Once you have found your therapist, an assessment is required to determine whether EMDR is the right therapy for you.
My initial assessment was £60 but this will vary depending on your therapist.
During this assessment I spoke a little bit about what I was experiencing and how this was affecting my day to day life. We sat and completed an assessment tool, which revealed that I met the criteria for PTSD and the severity was great enough to warrant treatment with EMDR.
If EMDR isn’t right for you, then your therapist may suggest an alternative treatment option.
EMDR can be a difficult process to go through and preparation is equally as important as the therapy itself.
In this stage your therapist will teach you skills and techniques that you can use to calm yourself down if things get difficult during the session or at home.
It is helpful if you already have a meditation or mindfulness practice as these techniques will really come in useful.
Your therapist may get you to think of a “safe place” that you can ‘take yourself to’ when you need. To do this you design an image where you would feel safe and secure. Imagining all the senses, you then use bilateral stimulation to process this as a memory.
Once this is a memory, it is there for you to access whenever you need and you should get the comforting feelings along with it!
This stage may not be necessary for everyone. If you have experienced one traumatic event then this is the event you will work on during your therapy.
However, if you have experienced multiple traumas in your life (known as complex trauma) then a trauma timeline is helpful to lay these out.
My therapist explained that processing one event on the trauma timeline may process other events that happened after it.
At the start of each session we would refer back to this timeline and whichever event stood out to me was the event we would work through.
Here comes the hard part… to process an event you need to bring back an image of that event and allow yourself to think about it. Obviously this isn’t pleasant, especially if you’ve prevented yourself from doing that for years.
While thinking about the image you will follow your therapists fingers quickly from side to side with your eyes (or use another form of bilateral stimulation) and allow yourself to feel the emotions and where these are in your body.
After each set of movements, you will feed back what you noticed and then continue. You do this for as long as necessary until your arousal level is significantly reduced.
You will then usually end a session with the relaxing techniques you learnt previously.
Each 1.5 hour session of processing cost me £90 and I think I had about 6 sessions.
Once you have worked through the traumatic events you have experienced, you may have a follow up appointment after a couple of weeks to determine if you are ready for ‘discharge’.
For me this involved a chat about how I’d been getting on and completion of the original assessment tool again.
When I completed the tool we found that I no longer met the criteria for C-PTSD and my therapist said that if I presented to her with these scores in an initial assessment she would be sending me on my merry way!
My Thoughts on my EMDR Experience
I don’t want to paint my EMDR experience as easy. Like any therapy, EMDR can be incredibly difficult to go through; this is where true healing takes place.
EMDR sessions can be very surreal and you will most likely feel very strong sensations in your body. If you are like me you will also have lots of moments when you burst into tears and struggle to get your words out… there’s no doubt about it that this is a hard process to go through!
After each session I left feeling emotionally drained and physically exhausted. Thankfully I have a really supportive boyfriend who travelled with me to each session and met me for a coffee and chat afterwards.
Down-time is so important; I would recommend lots of self-care, and definitely make use of the techniques you are taught between sessions to minimise “EMDR side effects”. Some people even describe it as an EMDR hangover!!
But with all this aside, I found my EMDR experience to be a highly positive one. Although each session was difficult, I came out with an underlying feeling of positivity. I could sense that I was making progress and I felt hopeful about the future, which is something I had never experienced with therapy before this.
EMDR therapy has helped me get to a point where I am able to think of previous traumatic memories without exploding with emotion. I am able to recognise and admit to myself that things happened without letting them define me.
EMDR therapy has helped me get to a point where I am able to think of previous traumatic memories without exploding with emotion. I am able to recognise and admit to myself that things happened without letting them define me. Click To Tweet
This is a huge improvement because I previously could not think about these things without feeling horrible emotions and experiencing physical reactions. My day to day mood swings and feelings of anxiety have also significantly reduced and I no longer avoid certain situations.
For me, completing a course of EMDR therapy was the best decision I have ever made for myself. I would wholeheartedly recommend that anybody who is suffering the effects of previous trauma at least considers it.
Part of the reason why I love this therapy so much is that it doesn’t actually require you to talk about your past experiences in detail, which was really helpful for me as talking is so hard.
My therapist was really understanding of this and only asked me to say enough for her to understand how it made me feel. For example, on my timeline, I labelled the most difficult thing “main event” so that we were able to have a mutual understanding of what we were discussing.
I completed my course 6 months ago now (at time of writing) and I have still not discussed the “main event” with anyone, but I like to hope that one day I will. I think EMDR has set me up to maybe work through things further using a talking therapy, which previously felt impossible.
Update: In February 2019 I shared the nature of my trauma on my blog for the first time
How to make your EMDR experience a positive one
- Go in with an open mind
- Find the right therapist for you on the counselling directory
- Start a meditation practice
- Make time for self care
- Trust the process
I hope that this blog post has helped to give you some insight into the process of EMDR and how it can help with traumatic memories.
I don’t think this therapy is talked about enough so if you think it could help someone you know please bring this post to their awareness! If you have any questions feel free to leave them in the comments or drop me an email.
Sending all of my love to you.