Thoughts to Consider in Therapy and in EMDR
EMDR is about allowing, accepting, and holding space for things as they are right now. It is not about fixing things. Fixing confounds the healing process. To the extent that you judge something as bad, wrong, or needs to be fixed, you are stuck with it. You are attached to it.
If you want movement to take place inside of you, you will need to be able to hold still. The body is always present in the moment, and it has a lot of truth and wisdom to deliver if we can just hold still, notice it, and allow for its self-revelation.
If you want emotional well being and to be free of trauma, you must engage in a free, full, and appropriate expression of your emotions. When you deny, disown, repress, or resist your emotions and pieces of your true self, and relegate them to the basement of your psyche, you will yield symptoms of anxiety and depression, and you may suffer from chemical imbalances and/or suffer from any variety of psychosomatic illnesses.
EMDR is a therapeutic technique that acts as a catalyst for healing traumas, shifting perspectives around traumatic life events, and changing the subsequent self-defeating beliefs we’ve unconsciously internalized about ourselves, our relationships, and our world.
The technique is Neuro-Physiologically based, and it encourages people to enter into a mind/body free association. In other words, they are encouraged to notice and be mindful of the feelings, sensations, and movement of energy that is taking place in their bodies, as well as bear witness to the thoughts and images that come to their mind, without judging them, trying to fix them, or make them go away.
During this mind/body free association, clients receive alternating bilateral stimulation to the hemispheres of the brain. Clinical trials and subsequent results have shown that the alternating bilateral stimulation achieves 3 therapeutic objectives:
1) Alternating bilateral stimulation seems to lift the veil that keeps the conscious and unconscious parts of our minds separate from each other. This process enables our conscious mind to receive and benefit from the wisdom housed in our unconscious.
When we’ve experienced a traumatic event in our lives, (particularly when we are children) we come to believe things about ourselves, relationships in general, and the world around us. These beliefs often dip beyond our conscious awareness, and settle into the basement of our unconscious. They are often self-limiting and maladaptive in nature, and compel us to seek out experiences that serve to validate and reinforce how right they are.
Because EMDR seems to lift the veil that separates our unconscious from our conscious awareness, we can receive some of the wisdom that is housed in our unconscious, and in turn we can challenge old beliefs that we’ve held onto as a result of a traumatic event and replace them with adaptive, positive ones.
2) Alternating bilateral stimulation seems to greatly improve the communication between the rational parts of our brain (the Neo-Cortex), and the emotional parts of our brain (the Limbic System). New neural networks that facilitate communication between these two parts of the brain get formed, and as a result new information, awareness, and wisdom travel back and forth to each other. This new information, awareness, and wisdom can serve to dim the memory, affect, and emotional charge associated with old traumatic events that remain housed in our limbic system.
3) Alternating bilateral stimulation facilitates the movement of energy throughout our bodies. Our bodies house the memories, feelings, and sensations associated with old traumatic events that we’ve lived through. When we pay close attention to the movement of energy in our bodies, it begins to shift, and the feelings and sensations associated with it lose their emotional charge.
In conclusion, it is worth noting that EMDR is a therapeutic technique that often accomplishes the following tasks:
Accesses new information that helps us to change our perspectives and beliefs that have arisen from traumatic life events.
Lowers the emotional charge that is stored in our bodies from those traumatic life events.
Achieves a connecting up of memory networks: (There are memories that are thematically similar, and they belong to the same “Memory Tree.”) The earlier the memory, the closer to the trunk of the tree we are. When we work through the memories closest to the trunk of the tree, the feelings of resolution, peace, and tranquility spread to all of its thematically-related branches.
Achieves a de-coupling of false associations.
Psychological Concepts Relevant to EMDR
1) Pie Chart of the Mind:
Imagine that your mind is shaped like a pie, and the pie is sliced up into 3 pieces. The first slice of the pie represents the conscious part of our mind, and it houses the part of our awareness that knows what we know about ourselves, the world, etc. (For example, I know that I am a Marriage and Family therapist, and that I presently work in Kensington, which is a town in San Diego.)
The second slice of the pie represents the other half of our conscious mind, and it houses the part of our awareness that knows what we don’t know (DK). (For example, I know that I don’t know how to play the harmonica, or the flute for that matter).
It is worth noting that we have access to a fair amount of awareness in these two places in our conscious mind. As a result, we rely on these two places to help us problem-solve and make any number of choices in our daily lives.
The third slice of the pie, however, represents the part of our mind that doesn’t know what it doesn’t know (DKDK.) It is the part of our mind that is entirely beyond our awareness. It sits in the basement of our psyche, and it’s often referred to as our unconscious.
In is here in the unconscious that we’ve relegated pieces of ourselves that we’ve come to believe are bad. Moreover, it is here that we may have buried the memories surrounding traumatic events in our lives, and the subsequent beliefs we’ve created about ourselves, relationships, and the world around us. It is also here, though, that we house wisdom, new information, brilliant ideas, and resources that we can access for the purposes of healing and growing.
When we become aware of the unconscious, self-limiting beliefs that compel us to act-out and/or act-in in ways that don’t serve us, we can then strive to turn those beliefs entirely around. In turn, we can then make conscious choices to behave in ways that are in alignment with our new belief system.
*Note: These maladaptive, self-limiting beliefs generally relate to the following 3 themes: Safety, Lovability, and Worth.
Pie-chart of the mind as it pertains to EMDR:
During the EMDR process, the alternating bilateral stimulation to the hemispheres of the brain seems to lift the veil that separates our unconscious from the conscious part of our mind. In turn, our conscious mind is given access to the pearls of wisdom shimmering beyond our reach in the dark depths of our unconscious. We can now pool this wisdom from these depths and use it to help us move through the feelings and sensations that we currently experience as a result of a past traumatic life event. We can also use this wisdom to help us change for good the unconscious, self-limiting beliefs we have about ourselves, our relationships, and the world around us.
Emotion is the movement of energy through our bodies that the mind notices, interprets, names, and tells a story about. When triggered emotionally, the hypothalamus in the brain pumps molecules down into the body and in turn the body gets excited, pissed off, stirred up, etc. The body reacts, and we then experience all kinds of physical sensations.
The physical sensations are the first things the conscious mind becomes aware of. The conscious mind then interprets these sensations and this movement of energy as being emotions, and it proceeds to give them a name. The 4 most common names given to emotions fall under the following 4 categories: Mad, Sad, Glad, and Fear.
Emotion as it pertains to EMDR
A) As I mentioned earlier, EMDR is essentially a mind/body free association. It can be helpful to know that the sensations we feel in our bodies signal that energy is moving. The bilateral stimulation that accompanies the EMDR process tends to facilitate this movement of energy. More energy moving throughout our bodies gives us more opportunities to track it, and this type of mindfulness causes it to lose its charge. As a result, the unpleasant physical sensations that are stored in our Limbic System after a traumatic event get flushed out of our bodies for good.
*Note: It is helpful to not judge these feelings and sensations, but rather to allow for them to come and go, ebb and flow, wax and wane, rise and fall, just as they wish.
3) How the Brain Stores Trauma
The human brain has many parts to it. Two separate parts of the human brain that are worth knowing about for the purposes of understanding how EMDR works is the Neo-Cortex and the Limbic system.
The Neo-Cortex is the most recently evolved part of the human brain. It is the rational part of the human brain that enables us to problem solve, think logically, etc.
The Limbic System is a far more primitive part of our brain. It happens to be well connected (unlike the Neo-Cortex or “rational brain”) to what we are sensing, feeling, and experiencing in our bodies. It is so primitive, in fact, that it has little sense for the passage of time.
In the Limbic system, the Amygdale stores snapshots and/or slow-motion videotapes of unique and novel life experiences. These experiences can be pleasant, but more often than not they tend to capture moments in time that are acute and/or traumatizing.
Whereas the Amygdale files away the snapshots and/or slow-motion videotapes, the Hippocampus (along with other parts of the Limbic System) stores the emotional charge and/or energy that coincided with the original trauma. When a sensory cue triggers in us the memory of a traumatic event, we are confronted again with the Amygdale’s snapshot/slow motion video that has captured that unsettling moment in time.
When this happens, the Hippocampus discharges the unpleasant feelings and sensations associated with that event. Because our Limbic System is unaware of the passage of time, we feel as though that experience is happening to us all over again in the here and now.
This re-experiencing of old traumas takes place a lot, for example, with soldiers who return from war. They get triggered time and again by sounds and other sensory cues that leave them feeling as though they’re still in grave danger on some battlefield thousands of miles away. Images, flashbacks, and disturbing memories along with unpleasant feelings and sensations overcome them.
While these soldiers may understand rationally that they are no longer in the midst of battle, their Limbic System lacks the presence of mind to assimilate this Neo-Cortical information.
How the Brain stores Trauma as it pertains to EMDR
It has become evident after many case studies that the alternating bilateral stimulation that takes place during the EMDR process helps to create new ways for the thinking, “rational brain” (Neo-Cortex), to talk to the “emotional brain”(Limbic System). This more highly evolved part of the brain brings a new wisdom, maturity, and enlightened perspective around the traumatic event, and because it is communicating far better with its primitive counterpart, the wisdom it offers has a calming effect on it and on our bodies as well. In turn, the emotional charge associated with the original trauma fades.
4) Resources (A Safe Place where you can go to, and protective and/or nurturing figures you can turn to)
A “Safe Place” is a sanctuary in your mind’s eye where you can go when you are feeling overwhelmed with emotion, troubled by unpleasant sensations in your body, and/or burdened by intrusive thoughts and unsettling images entering your mind. The safe place where you take yourself to can be somewhere that you’ve already been to in your life, or it can be a place where you’ve always wanted to visit. It can even be a place that you’ve seen in a movie, a magazine, a children’s book, a cartoon, etc.
It can be particularly helpful for you to envision yourself feeling safe, calm, protected, nurtured, and/or empowered there. It may also be helpful for you to imagine nurturing and/or protective figures (known as “resources”) in your life joining you in that safe place, for the purposes of offering you comfort, support, counsel, and love.
These nurturing and/or protective resources can be a favorite pet animal of yours, God, Jesus, the Universe, Mom, Dad, a shaman, a favorite teacher you once had, an action hero, friends, family, wild animals, a mythological figure, a Walt Disney character, etc. It can also be very helpful for you to turn to your “Adult Self” and use him or her as a resource.
It is very likely that when you were traumatized as a child, you felt powerless over your circumstances, exceedingly vulnerable, and helpless to do anything about it. Your “Adult Self”, however, has a lot more life experience under his belt, and he is able to look back at traumatic events in your childhood with more objectivity, wisdom, and insight than the child in you can. With this in mind, it can be very helpful for your Inner Child to call upon your “Adult Self” when he or she is feeling scared, helpless, frozen, and/or out of control. Have him or her seek out your Adult Self’s love, compassion, forgiveness, and wisdom.
Safe Place as it pertains to EMDR
During EMDR you may experience unpleasant body sensations and feelings, and/or you may feel burdened by troubling thoughts or images that come to your mind. If the level of disturbance that you feel is greater than a 7 on a scale of 1-10, it may be helpful for you to stop the EMDR process and take yourself to your safe place. When you are there, take deep breaths, take in the soothing sounds and beautiful scenery that surrounds you there, and turn to your nurturing and protective resources for warmth, love, guidance, wisdom, and comfort.
Resources (protective and nurturing figures) as they pertain to EMDR
As I said before, it can be very helpful for you to turn to your nurturing and protective resources when you could use some comfort, guidance, and support while spending time in your “Safe Place.” Also, it can be very helpful to rely on your resources for strength and courage when you are revisiting an old trauma, and you have chosen to address the very people that victimized you back then.
For example, if you’ve gone back in time and see yourself being mistreated by your abusive Mother, you can call upon one of your resources to stand by your side. You can even ask that nurturing and/or protective figure to hold your hand or hug you, or you can have them confront your abusive Mother on your behalf. Having done this, you may come away from the scene that you’ve re-created believing differently about yourself, your relationships, and the world.
Rather than believe, for instance, that you’re unable to protect yourself in your relationships and that your’e unsafe in the world, you may come to believe instead, “I can protect myself” and/or “I am safe and sound.”
*It is important to note that when we revisit old traumatic memories with fresh eyes, an adult’s wisdom, and protective and nurturing figures at our beck and call, we can change our perspective on what took once place. With the help of bilateral stimulation, and the wisdom and resources shared between the conscious mind and the emotional mind (Limbic system), the emotional charge dissipates.
1) Keep your eyes open or closed.
2) Float back in time to where and when the original trauma took place in your life. (This is known as the Target Memory). Imagine the most disturbing part of that moment in time. (This is known as the Original Picture). Allow yourself to feel the feelings and body sensations as if that moment in time is happening to you right now. Please be sure to report back to me what you are hearing, seeing, feeling, tasting, and smelling in the present tense.
3) Enter into a mind/body free association. Do not try to make anything happen or try to control anything. Just go with it.
4) If you want to stop the bilateral stimulation before I stop it, please let me know. If I stop the bilateral stimulation too soon, and you would like it to continue, kindly ask me to turn the bilateral stimulation back on.
5) I will periodically ask you how disturbing or distressing the old memory is to you in the present moment, out of 10, 1 being the least disturbing, and 10 being the most disturbing. Ideally, after going through the old memory a few times, you will say that you are at a Zero, and that there is no emotional charge left.
6) When you are at a Zero, I will ask you what you believe now about yourself, relationships, and/or the world around you. We’ll be looking for a change that comes from you. Then we’ll go back to the original picture and target memory one last time, with your new belief in tow.
7) If you are stuck, looping, and/or nothing is happening while you’re revisiting the original picture and target memory, we’ll get active. I may ask you to call upon your resources, or I may ask you a few questions that may help free you from your “stuck” place. If you’d like to, feel free to change the scene in ways that help you to feel more empowered. For example, turn your tyrannical father into a midget, and then imagine yourself as a giant having your way with him. Better yet, have Superman appear out of nowhere and watch him whisk your father away to another world.
It is important for you to remember during the EMDR process that you are the producer, the director, the script writer, the set designer, and the casting agent. You can manipulate that old scene in any way that you see fit. In addition, you can call upon any and all resources that you think will help you to face old fears and work through old traumas.
During EMDR, you may find that new resources that you hadn’t thought of before spontaneously appear. This is because you have greater access to the creativity and resourcefulness in your unconscious. This spontaneous, natural, effortless rising up of resources, wisdom, and healing from the unconscious is one of the things that EMDR facilitates.
8 ) If you’re feeling overwhelmed, kindly let me know, and then go to your safe place. I will be more than happy to help guide you there.
9) Sometimes the original picture and target memory will lead you down other paths, or memory networks. You and I will decide together if it’s worthwhile to explore these new territories. We want to be careful not to move in too many different directions at once, thereby opening up a Pandora’s Box. If we do decide to explore other memory networks, we must always come back to our original picture and complete our work there, in order to get the resolution we’re looking for.
10) Sometimes after an EMDR session, cognitive processing may continue and additional insight and awareness may rise up. They may be revealed in your dreams, for example. It is important to be gentle with yourself, and treat yourself with extra good care.
If you are feeling overwhelmed for any reason, consider going to your Safe Place. If you are still feeling upset, feel free to call me and we can spend a few minutes on the phone together.