First things first – what the hell is EMDR?
EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. It’s a fairly new type of therapy developed to help people who have experienced traumas like car accidents, assault, or military combat. But the treatment can also be beneficial to patients with generalized anxiety order. EMDR helps decrease the intensity of an anxiety-triggering memory or thought process, and replaces it with a more positive one. Since the method is relatively new, there are of course many doctors and therapists who doubt its success and insist that more studies need to be done before they can have conclusive evidence as to its effectiveness. But as someone who has been in and out of traditional “talk therapy” for the better part of sixteen years, I’ve not only had a positive experience, but a highly effective one. I know that finding any type of treatment that works can be life-changing for those of us who struggle with anxiety, so I wanted to share my experience in a blog.
My parents sent me to my very first therapist when I was sixteen. For the most part, I think I did benefit from sitting in her incense-infused office surrounded by crystals and tie-dyed wall hangings as she listened to my teen angst and gave advice with her bare feet curled up beneath her. She was the first of probably half a dozen therapists I would see over the next decade and a half, and it was around this same time that I also began the long, drawn out trial and error process of trying one anti-depressant after another. Both the therapists and the drugs changed every few years, usually because the bad side effects of the meds outweighed any benefits, and insurance and financial circumstances changed pretty frequently in my twenties. I also tried other methods to calm my anxiety along with therapy – mediation, yoga, deep breathing, positive self-talk, self-help books, exercise – but nothing really worked short term let alone long term.
In early 2017, I was having a serious case of the winter blues, made worse by the results of the 2016 election. I was also in a bad place personally- my writing was going nowhere, wedges (and walls) were being built between family and friends, and having a husband that worked second shift left me feeling consumed by loneliness for four nights a week. I sought out a traditional therapist once again, and our first few sessions left me feeling worse instead of better. When I presented her with all of my goals and aspirations (and the fears that went along with them), she told me that I needed to “take some things off my plate” and that “someone with anxiety can’t have that much going on.” It was at that point that I realized that I no longer wanted to be held back by my anxiety. I needed something to actually change.
Then my little sister, who is blessed with more brains, beauty, talent, and sass than I’ll ever have, bluntly told me, for about the four hundredth time, to look into EMDR therapy. I was hesitant at first since I felt as though I’d plateaued with traditional therapy, and as anyone who’s ever tried to find a new doctor knows, finding the right match can be stressful and exhausting in and of itself.
I made a list of EMDR providers in Pittsburgh and made some phone calls. The first few therapists I spoke with seemed confused as to why I was contacting them. When they asked me what kind of trauma I’d experienced, I told them that I was dealing with anxiety. They basically told me that they didn’t think they could help me, and I nearly gave up. Then I called JM. I loved her from our first phone conversation. She was cool, casual, accepting, upbeat, and welcoming. My insurance didn’t cover EMDR when I first started, but she agreed to take me on as a self-paying patient and charge on a sliding scale.
So my journey began.
The first few times I saw JM, she got to know me and my struggles with anxiety. Then she asked me what I wanted to achieve. I explained that I didn’t want to spend my life “taking things off my plate” and limiting myself because of the anxiety. So we got to work.
In an EMDR session, JM asks me about a specific memory (she started with the earliest memory I could conjure where I felt anxious). She then asks me what the worst part of the memory is (anger, fear, etc). Next she asks what negative belief about myself I associate with said memory (“I don’t deserve what I want,” “I’m not important). Then she asks where I feel the memory in my body (head, back, stomach, chest). As I talk through the memory, I am holding two little buzzers, one in each hand. The intensity of the buzzing decreases as I work through the memory, and as I reach the end of the memory, the buzzing eventually stops. (some therapists use musical tones or finger movements instead of buzzers).
This sounds bizarre, and it is a bit hard to explain. But the best way I can describe how this actually works is using this example: One of the most painful memories I tackled was my grandfather’s death. When we started on the memory, it was raw and “in my face,” despite the fact that it had happened nearly fifteen years ago. The pain was in my chest and the emotion was a roaring in my ears. As we worked through the memory (which actually took two or three hour-long sessions), the intensity of the memory slowly decreased. The pain I associated with his passing literally subsided. Instead of feeling like I had a knife in my heart every time I mentioned him, it was like I had just a little bruise or cut over my heart, but there was a Band-Aid and antibiotic cream over it to help it heal. After those few intense sessions, whenever I thought about my Pap being sick, his funeral, and the days after, it was like I was looking at the memories through a peephole instead of them playing out graphically right before my eyes.
And this is the way each painful memory has played out for me. Even though I’ve been doing this for nearly a year, it is still unbelievable to me that something could be so damn . . . dare I say it? Easy!
One of the cool things that happens with EMDR is that as I’m recalling a memory, crazy other recollections or negative belief patterns pop up that I never in a million years would have associated with the memory I’m presently working on. It’s hard for me to describe this in detail, since I don’t want to bear all of my secrets on the Internet, but, for example, once when recalling a memory about a loved one, I suddenly realized that the memory wasn’t only painful because of my feelings towards that person, but also because of how I was treated by others during a specific time period or event.
I still have a long way to go as far as tackling my painful memories and negative beliefs go. And I still have panic attacks from time to time. But I have most definitely seen more improvements and progress than ever before. My writing has exploded for the first time in nearly a decade, I finally started volunteering with a local organization, and, most importantly, I am standing up for myself when it comes to my beliefs, my needs, and my feelings. For the most part, I simply feel emotions instead of being controlled by them.
This next highlight is a stunner — my inner monologue is actually beginning to change. Since this has been a goal since starting traditional therapy all those years ago, it is astounding when I unconsciously react positively to a negative situation. Now, someone criticizing the way I cook my dinners is their problem, not mine. I can actually deflect their negativity without internalizing it and making myself think that there’s something wrong with me!
I should mention that EMDR does not work for everyone. It usually works best for “visual” people, like artists of some type. Not everyone will be able to articulate “where” they feel emotion in their body, and not everyone will be able to recall specific memories or pinpoint particular moments that triggered a negative belief. You may also have some trouble finding a provider in your area since it’s a relatively new treatment, and your insurance may not cover the sessions. These are the few negatives associated with EMDR.
But if what I’ve just described makes sense to you, and if you’ve struggled to get results from traditional therapy, I highly recommend it. I cannot wait to see what I tackle next, and I really hope others can benefit from it as well.
DISCLAIMER: I researched the technical definition and procedure of EMDR on www.webmd.com and http://www.Bostoneveningtherapy.com.
I am not a doctor or therapist of any kind and am not qualified to give any medical advice. This blog is simply one person’s experience with a particular type of therapy.