Last week I shared about 2 questions people frequently ask me when considering #EMDR treatment. I shared how EMDR won’t make you forget the bad things (#5) nor will it make you remember a bunch of stuff you forgot (#4). See my last post for more information about the Desensitization & Reprocessing of EMDR.
This week, I’ll share a few more questions I am often asked about EMDR and their answers.
#3 – So, is it like hypnosis?
I have to admit, before I began my own journey in healing, I was a huge skeptic. I would even mock the iconic ‘eye movement’ part of the whole process. As if I was such an expert on how to help people recover from past horrific events.
"So, you just have someone wave their fingers in front of you while you’re thinking of bad stuff and suddenly, you’re all better?"
Well, yes… and no. First, there is nothing ‘sudden’ about the process. It is true you don’t have to relive every g-d damned minute of a horrible event in order to Desensitize yourself and Reprocess it. However, you do have to allow your body and mind to revisit the event to some extent. Following your therapist’s fingers with your eyes back and forth across the brain’s meridian isn’t to make it more open to suggestions (like a hypnotist). Instead, eye movements provide a type of grounding in the present reality while you revisit the past.
At first it was thought the Eye Movements of EMDR were helpful because they imitated the Rapid Eye Movements of the deep, event processing stage of sleep – REM. Our body naturally processes information and events when we sleep, deciding what it needs to file in long-term memory and what is not necessary to remember. Obviously, it is more complicated, otherwise why would we have weird dreams about Sparkly Man coming through our window at night to get us… Oh wait, that’s just me? Okay, never mind, moving on.
Many EMDR therapists do not use the traditional Eye Movements anymore. Some clients still prefer them, but others prefer other forms of Bi-Lateral Stimulation (BLS). Studies show any form of sensory stimulation from one side of the brain to the other helps people Desensitize and Reprocess traumatic memories effectively. There is still some debate among researchers about this. If you’d like to go deeper down this path, I’d be happy to share what I’ve found. For now though, know that an EMDR therapist isn’t going to hypnotize you and implant suggestions into your head.
#2 – Do we REALLY need to start all the way back in my childhood?
Very few people come into my office and say they want to rehash their entire life story from the time they were born. This question always conjures the image from Finding Nemo when the shark at the Fish-Eater’s Anonymous meeting cries out “I never knew my father!” I laugh like almost everyone else, because society tells us people like this are silly, attention-seeking cry babies making mountains out of molehills.
The truth is, the stories we tell ourselves about our past affect our reactions in the present and set us on a course towards our future.
It doesn't take a whole lot of training to be able to notice a person's past in their present interactions. It happens all the time, we may not recognize it because we take it for granted. When someone says - "Well, history repeats itself." or "I guess you reap what you sow" or my least favorite; "I believe everything happens for a reason!" they are saying 'I am telling myself a story about how I came to this place.' Just because this is the story we are telling ourselves now, doesn't mean it has to be the story we continue to believe for the rest of our lives. And yet, this is how so many of us live. Yes, actions have consequences, any action causes an equal and opposite reaction, and we often find ourselves in similar circumstances to ones we've been in before. But there is a problem with this line of thinking that we so often overlook.
Here is a simple example: I hate canned peaches. The reason I tell myself I hate them is because of a time I was about 9 years old and I attempted to run away from home. I 'stole' a jar of peaches my step-mother had canned as food for the trip. When my step-sister found out what I was planning, she snitched. My punishment? I had to eat canned peaches, and ONLY canned peaches, until my step-mother thought I had learned my lesson. So, for 40 years since, I have avoided eating canned peaches. In fact, every time I'm offered something peach flavored, I have a visceral reaction. Is it because I don't like the taste of peaches? Not at all. It's because of the story I tell myself about the canned peaches every time I'm reminded of them. Herein lies the problem - Each time I'm offered something peach-flavored (most recently a peach margarita) I feel like a little 9 year old boy who wanted to escape my controlling, mentally-ill step-mother. My stomach turns, I picture the mason jar of fu*king canned peaches, and I feel ashamed. An action produces an equal and opposite reaction... right? Wrong.
So... why am I telling you this again? Oh, right, EMDR. Using EMDR, 48-year-old me can go back in time to 9-year-old me and tell him the rest of the story. I can tell him he isn't an ungrateful child. I can point-out to him my step-mother's mental illness, now plain as day. I can show him he does make it through all those syrupy, mushy, gross jars of peaches. Yes, the diarrhea and stomach cramps will still be a part of my past. The story I've told myself about this event doesn't have to remain the same.
There are far more painful experiences than being forced to eat canned peaches. The stories we tell ourselves about being assaulted, abused, injured, traumatized run deep and carry dangerous monstrosities that can cripple us for life. But they don't have to.
We can rewrite our stories, if we are given a chance. EMDR gives us that chance.
Thank you for reading through this. Next time I'll answer the question I'm most frequently asked about EMDR. In the meanwhile, please reach out with your thoughts, questions or experiences with EMDR. I'd love to hear what your journey is like! You can reach me at WillKoehlerLCSW@atraumainformedlife.com