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  • Writer's pictureMind on the Path

EMDR Therapy

Updated: Apr 21

What it's really like to use EMDR to re-process memories


When I began my counseling experience with my therapist, I discovered she was a certified EMDR therapist. Not knowing what EMDR was, she explained it was one of the methods used in therapy that could help re-process past memories. After gaining a better understanding of what EMDR was and how it could help, I have since been using EMDR as part of my therapy for the last few years. Read on to learn more about my experience and what it's really like to use EMDR to re-process memories.


EMDR: What it means.

The abbreviation stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. It's simply one of many tools that therapists can use to help patients re-process past experiences and reframe their core beliefs and ways of thinking.


EMDR: When it is used.

EMDR is a great and effective tool to use when someone has things from their past that they would like to re-process and find healing from. It's a way to go beyond talking through the memories, and it gives space to actually sit and work through it mentally and process it to help gain a better belief about yourself. It allows you to not just shove down the past but face it, acknowledge what happened, and decide what you want to believe about yourself now in relation to that experience.


EMDR: What tools are used.

The two main tools used in EMDR (at least in my experience) are a light bar and vibration tappers. The light bar is a metal bar that rests on a stand and it has a circular light that moves from left to right at different speeds. You follow the light as it moves across the bar with only your eyes. The purpose of this is that the rapid eye movement will activate a faster way of processing your thoughts. This will allow you to re-process memories in a quicker, but still very thorough way. It doesn't feel like a rush of thoughts, and it's not a form of hypnotism. It's just a natural way to tap into the brain's normal functioning and stimulate it with a purposeful intention of increasing thought processes.


The second tool, the vibration tappers, are small hand-held devices that you hold, one in each hand. As you follow the light bar with your eyes, the tappers will do short quick vibrations that will bounce back and forth between your left and right hand. This is another way to help stimulate the brain. The back-and-forth sensation is thought to activate bilateral activity in the brain making it easier to process thoughts.


Some debate exists surrounding exactly how EMDR affects the brain activity, but in my personal experience, I have found that the light bar helps me focus and process thoughts and memories quicker and the tappers help me feel grounded and further focused on the target memory. I have done EMDR in remote therapy as well using only a computer program that has a ball that goes from the left to the right of the screen and no tappers at all. It was a definite adjustment, and it works best on a bigger computer screen as opposed to on a phone or tablet. Once I got used to the different source, I went straight back into the flow of processing my memories using EMDR. Some may find they prefer the light bar; some may want to use the tappers as well. As long as you are open and work with your therapist to find the best setup, I'm sure you will find what tools work best for you.


EMDR: What the process looks like.

When I first began EMDR, I was asked if it was like hypnotherapy or if you lose active conscious thinking. The experience of EMDR is nothing like that. A therapist who is trained to offer EMDR treatment will follow certain steps to help guide you. This specific process may look slightly different depending on your therapist and your needs, but I will give a breakdown of what the process looked like for me.


Pre-Work:

A step to take before beginning the process of EMDR is to set up and establish strong coping and containing techniques with your counselor. EMDR will not be sunshine and butterflies. It's actively choosing to sit with and re-process uncomfortable, disturbing, and sometimes traumatic events that you may have previously avoided thinking about before. This process will not let you avoid thinking about it or feeling the emotions around it. Because of that, it can sometimes feel like opening up a can of worms when you initially start working on a target memory because you are opening up those thoughts and memories. That's why it's very important to have coping techniques in place beforehand that you can turn to so that, in between therapy sessions and EMDR sessions, you are able to contain and manage the emotions and thoughts that have come up in the process so you can still function and handle your day-to-day activities.


Intro:

My therapist begins by asking me what memory/experience I would like to re-process. I then will set up a mental image that best represents that experience for me and share that with them. That image will then be used as a guide throughout that keeps me on track in case I get distracted or start to go down a different train of thoughts/memories. I'm then asked to focus on that image and describe what emotions come up for me and where in my body I feel those emotions (an example could be that I feel fear and that I feel that emotion in the tensing of my jaw). I'll then be asked on a scale how much that image and those emotions disturb me. Then, I will determine what negative belief I have about myself because of my experience. My therapist will then ask me what positive belief I would like to have instead. That then becomes the target. The goal then for the entire process will be processing and sitting with the experience in such a way that I find myself growing from that negative belief and coming to a place of believing that positive one instead. All of those initial questions are set up by my therapist, but all of the answers are fully in my control and determined by me. Once all of this is established, we will then start the sets of eye movements and/or tappers.


During:

I will now begin to actually process the target. My therapist will have me face the light bar and hold the tappers, and I am supposed to focus on the image that represents the target and think about the negative belief I have surrounding that target and just see where my mind goes from there. The process of EMDR is divided into sets. I will have sets of about 30 seconds or a minute (the amount of time is set by my therapist, but if I felt I would like a longer or shorter set, I can just tell them).


During that time, I am following the light with my eyes, holding the tappers, and allowing my mind to process and go through whatever emotions or thoughts come up for me as I focus on that target image and that negative belief. Once the set is done, my therapist will turn off the light bar and tappers and I will tell her what I noticed and what I was thinking through that set. Based on my response, she might then have a short discussion with me based on what came up, or if I had a new thought come up that she wants me to sit with, she will have me stick with that thought and focus on that during the next set.


It's all well-guided and I am not left to just figure out how to do the EMDR on my own, but it's all also very much led by me in that the re-processing is based solely on what thoughts come up for me, and it's not thoughts or beliefs given to me by my therapist. It's a method of therapy that helps me to use my own natural processing and mental capabilities to find new ways of thinking and ultimately find healing by working through not around the negative past experiences.


The End:

The length of time that it takes from the start of a new target to the closing of one varies greatly. It depends on the level of disturbance that the target memory/experience brings up, and it depends on what else comes up in the middle of re-processing. I've had some targets that have been re-processed and closed out relatively quickly because they did not cause high levels of disturbance and they had no connection to other memories or negative beliefs about myself. I've had others that have taken months because they either had very high level of disturbances and brought up a lot of anxiety with them, or they were closely linked with other past experiences/negative beliefs so to re-process and unpack one meant I had to also do the same for the connecting experience. All of it varies and any timing is fine, there is never any pressure from my therapist to speed up the re-processing or to draw it out longer than it needs to be either.


As I go through my sets, I will find over time that with each new set I am allowing myself to actually sit with and feel the emotions that I have connected to the target, and I am able to find new ways of thinking about those events, and most importantly new ways of thinking about myself. For example, I once re-processed a car accident I witnessed because it brought up anxiety for me while I drove, and I was believing that I was unsafe in vehicles. While working in EMDR through that experience I was able to feel the emotions that came with it, separate myself from the event, and come to believe that I am not unsafe, but that I am now more aware while I am driving instead and let go of the fear attachment. My therapist helped guide me through it by keeping me on target and offering insights when needed, but it was ultimately my own mind and re-processing that is doing the work of actually sitting with the experience and finding new ways of thinking about it.


As my therapist sees and hears indications that the level of disturbance that I feel about a target memory has gone down, she will ask me on that same scale how much it still brings up disturbances in me. If I find there is any level of disturbance left, we will continue working and do more sets, but if I find I have zero disturbance left, she will move forward with a series of questions to help close out the target.


She will ask me if that new positive belief I created at the beginning still feels fitting for the target. Often, I will find that the new belief I am feeling or thinking has changed. For example, I can struggle with OCD, so sometimes my initial positive belief I chose might be that I am clean, but then as I process an experience and see the true emotions and fears related to it, I might determine that the new belief I want to feel about this experience is that I am safe. Whatever the deciding positive belief is, my therapist will then ask me on a scale how much I believe that statement to be true as I sit with that target memory. If it's not fully and completely true to me, I will do however many sets it takes until I do believe it completely. Once I determine that I believe that new statement fully with regards to that target, I will then sit with that new belief and reinforce it through a few sets of eye movements to really establish it in my mind.


To finish off, my therapist will ask me to close my eyes and scan my body to see if I feel any disturbances come up in any area of my body (we often can store our negative emotions in our bodies through tensing up or other physical responses such as feeling nauseous, etc.). If I do feel any kind of disturbance, I will then go through a set to see what it is that I am still feeling and if there is anything else that still needs to be worked through before closing out the target, which has definitely happened to me before. If so, it's no problem, I just go back to doing sets until that feeling is gone and then go to the end questions again starting with that scale of if I feel any disturbance when thinking of that target image. If I felt no disturbance at all when I scanned my body, I will do one final set to reinforce that new positive belief and notice that I feel no disturbance anywhere in my body when I think about the target image. That target memory is now considered closed out.


*** Just because a target gets closed out, it doesn't mean I will never think about that memory again and that it will never cause me disturbance again. Sometimes a new trigger might bring that memory up again with a new or different fear or negative emotion than what came up before. At that point I can decide if the level of disturbance is enough that I want to set it up as a target again and do EMDR work on it, or if I would like to process it through using my coping techniques or talk therapy. The choice is always mine. ***


EMDR: How it helps.

EMDR can be used for a variety of different reasons, but it's often used to work through anxiety, trauma, PTSD. I have personally used it to process past negative experiences and I've even used it to work on current day triggers of anxiety. I have found it to be such an effective way of just focusing my thoughts and really getting down to the source of fear or other negative emotions I'm experiencing. It has been so useful in helping me find new ways of thinking and feeling about different experiences and about myself.


EMDR is an amazing process, not because it's a miracle cure for past negative experiences or trauma, but because it shows you just how powerful your own mind can be in re-processing and working through trauma. You'll get to witness your resilience and ability to find emotional and mental healing in a safe and focused environment that will give you the time and space to process something that has possibly been weighing you down.


***EMDR is not easy. Any form of therapy can be difficult and challenging. It takes such courage to be willing to face and work on things that you struggle with the most. Please keep in mind that EMDR is no different. It's a method of therapy that is actively choosing to sit with negative memories/experiences and many negative emotions are likely to come up with it. Please speak in-depth with your therapist about what to expect and how to manage all the emotions/thoughts that might come up with it before starting. Be sure you feel you can trust your therapist and feel comfortable enough with them so that if you start EMDR and find it too disruptive, you can express that to them, and they can help you find a better treatment option. ***

When I first began EMDR I was at my lowest and it opened up all of my negative thoughts and emotions and I had to really rely on my coping techniques during that time because my anxiety and OCD overall greatly increased. But as I stayed committed to the process and did the hard work of working through those negative experiences, I began to find healing and freedom that I had not thought possible. Mental and emotional healing can be a journey of highs and lows, but it's one that is so worth taking.


EMDR is not for everyone. Please speak with a licensed therapist to decide if EMDR might be an effective treatment option for you. Not all therapists are trained to offer EMDR treatment, so if that is something you are interested in possibly exploring, be sure to ask if they are EMDR-trained. As always, I wish you the very best in your mental health journey, and hope that you find whatever treatment plan (whether it's EMDR, cognitive behavioral therapy, etc.) works best for you. The goal is mental and emotional healing, and whatever your journey looks like, I hope you find that healing.


*** Anything written in this blog is based on my own personal experience and not a professional opinion. If you or someone you know is struggling with any mental health issue, please speak to a professional. For a list of some mental health resources and contacts available to you, please download the file below. ***



Thank you for reading this blog post. It's very close to my heart and I hope that it provides useful information for you. If you would like to hear more about my experience with EMDR, please use the contact form below to send me an email. For even more mental health blogs, be sure to subscribe below to get emails on all future posts. Connect with the blog on social media @mindonthepath. I pray for peace and strength in your life. Thank you for reading. ❤️

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