Thursday, 8 November 2012

My First EMDR Session

Image from
On Tuesday I began "Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing" therapy, or EMDR to keep it simple. I came into the session already quite tired, after a busy and stressful day of classes and presentations, and the therapy took any energy I had left out of me.

The therapist began by asking me to picture the traumatic event and to think of a label that was most appropriate to how I felt. For me, this became "I am powerless". I was asked to rate my anxiety and distress on a scale of 1-10, and I replied with a reasonably high but not extreme answer (7, I think). I was feeling quite in control at that moment, fortunately. I was then asked to look at the light bar - a little light moves from left-to-right continually across it, or vertically if you prefer that - whilst thinking about the feelings associated with "I am powerless".

After each thirty seconds interval the therapist would ask me how I was feeling at that point, and it varied considerably across the hour of therapy. At first I became more distressed, then quite confused and unsure what I was to be distressed about, then less anxious when I could recall the event. About halfway through the session I recalled another memory that I've always been quite uncomfortable with, and that raised my stress levels once again. My distress didn't go down much for the rest of the session, not until the calming down exercises at the end.

I felt a bit stupid just looking at the moving light, but I do get the impression that it was doing something. When I was asked at each interval to describe how I was feeling, I found it incredibly difficult to talk. Almost impossible, to be honest. I didn't know how I was feeling, and if I did I couldn't put it into words. As I was concentrating on the light bar, I also found it hard to concentrate on my difficult memories for prolonged time. I think I'm very used to trying to keep them out of my head as much as possible, and it makes sense not to want to suffer for a whole hour. My stoic self does need to change slightly in order to let this therapy work fully, I think.

I left the session feeling very tense, and I still haven't been able to let the tension go entirely. Everything seemed a bit surreal, and I just wanted to quickly get home. My boyfriend was going to phone me to keep me company on the half-hour walk back, but I got angry with him when he tried (poor man). I just couldn't concentrate on what he was saying, and I wanted to try and reach some sort of peace.

I spent the evening in a bit of a daze and feeling exhausted. The last two nights I've been surprised at how well I've slept; really deeply in fact. I thought that there would be nightmares and insomnia, although I was told so many times - and still am told - not to create expectations about the therapy. I have had some odd dreams, and this morning I woke up with really sore, tense hands after they had probably been in fists most the night.

As I've only had one session, I certainly can't say if it's working. Currently I'm still feeling high levels of distress when I recall the difficult feelings and memories, but I am also having moments of calm. My mind's telling me to stay away from therapy and just get through it myself, but I'm going to do my best to be strong and go through with it. Hopefully I won't feel like a ghost for the whole course of therapy.


Violet said...

I'm pretty interested to see how things work out. There's a bit of contention about EMDR. I don't really know how I feel about it, but I think you're brave for giving it a go and I hope it helps you.

Lucy said...

Thank you for the kind message. I'm still unsure how it will go, and it's very hard not to feel any scepticism, but I'm really keen to give it a go :) I hope you're well.

Brian Joseph said...

Good luck with the therapy. I hope that it works out and you see real improvement.

These long term challenges can be so very frustrating to deal with. Hopefully this will help to alleviate some distress.

Patti Levin said...

I'm a therapist who uses EMDR as my primary method and I've also personally had EMDR therapy for my own stuff. As a client, EMDR worked extremely well and also really fast on my problems (anxiety, grief, "small t trauma"). Recently I read Dr. Shapiro's new book "Getting Past Your Past: Take Control of Your Life with Self-Help Techniques from EMDR." Dr. Shapiro is the founder/creator of EMDR (but all the proceeds from the book go to two charities: the EMDR Humanitarian Assistance Program and the EMDR Research Foundation). Anyway, the book is very helpful and empowering. It's an easy read, helps you understand what's "pushing" your feelings and behavior, helps you connect the dots from past experiences to current life. Also gives lots of really helpful ways that are used during EMDR therapy to calm disturbing thoughts and feelings.

I have used EMDR very successfully with PTSD and many other problems. It's a very gentle method with no "down-side" so that in the hands of a professional EMDR therapist, there should be no freak-outs or worsening of day-to-day functioning.

There is a ton of great research proving EMDR's efficacy and it is considered a first-line treatment for PTSD by organizations such as ISTSS (International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation), American Psychiatric Assoc, Amer. Psychological Assoc, Dept of Veteran Affairs, Dept of Defense, Departments of Health in Northern Ireland, UK, Israel, the Netherlands, France, and other countries and organizations.

During EMDR you learn a lot of great coping strategies and self-soothing techniques which you can use during EMDR processing or anytime you feel the need. You learn how to access a “Safe or Calm Place” which you can use at ANY TIME during EMDR processing (or on your own) if it feels too intense. One of the initial phases in EMDR involves preparing the client for memory processing or desensitization (the 4th phase in the 8 phases of EMDR therapy). Resources are "front-loaded" so that you have a "floor" or "container" to help with processing the really hard stuff. One of the key assets of EMDR is that YOU, the client, are in control NOW, even though you probably weren’t in past traumatic events. You NEVER need re-live an experience or go into great detail. You NEVER need to go through the entire memory. YOU can decide to keep the lights (or the alternating sounds and/or tactile pulsars, or the waving hand) going, or stop them, whichever helps titrate – measure and adjust the balance or “dose“ of the processing. During EMDR processing there are regular “breaks” and you can control when and how many but the therapist should be stopping the bilateral stimulation every 25-50 passes of the lights to ask you to take a deep breath and ask you to say just a bit of what you’re noticing. This helps keep a “foot in the present” while you’re processing the past. Again, and I can’t say this enough, YOU ARE IN CHARGE so YOU can make the process tolerable. And your therapist should be experienced in the EMDR techniques that help make it the gentlest and safest way to detoxify bad life experiences.

I hope your therapist did some "front-loading" of resources, and that your description of the session kind of left out a number of key parts to the full protocol. See this link for a full description:

Lucy said...

Brian - thank you for your well wishes :) I hope that you're also well and reading avidly!

Patti, thank you very much for your comment. I've been aware of Shapiro's "self-help" book for some time, and you have now persuaded me to buy it. Hopefully it will help me understand what's happening to me a little better, and enhance the process.

I apologise that my overview of the process wasn't entirely full, and I did miss some parts out as you presumed. I did spend a session with the therapist creating a "safe place", alongside discussing some breathing exercises. Just reading through the copy of Shapiro's book I've bought on my Kindle, I can see some other useful resources that I'll be sure to try.

Thank you again for reminding me of my control over the therapy alongside other factors; I'll be sure to bring up any disparities between your advice and the treatment I'm getting with the therapist himself.

All the best,


Dan Opdyke said...

Ditto what Patti Levin said. Except I see some people having a rough time between sessions no matter what. Just remember that it can never be as bad as the actual event you are processing and that you WILL get through it. Hang in there! BTW I have practiced this method for 2 decades.

Lucy said...

Thank you Dan. I've had a second session now and it did seem easier. I'm also finding my attitudes towards the past a lot more positive than before. So far I'm glad that I chose this therapy :)

All the best.