If you’ve been unfortunate enough to encounter trauma and symptoms of PTSD in your life, you’ll likely know how difficult it can be to work through your trauma using therapy. Maybe you’ve tried several different therapies and had little success, and it all just feels hopeless – trust me I know, I’ve been there.
But not all therapies are the same, and EMDR is a type of therapy that is really in a league of its own when it comes to the treatment of trauma. It surprises me then that this therapy isn’t spoken about more, since it’s thanks to EMDR that I was able to overcome complex PTSD and truly kickstart my journey of mental health recovery.
If I had known about this therapy much sooner than I did, it’s entirely possible that I would have found relief from my symptoms much sooner. Although I can’t rewind and change this, I like to think that sharing my experience may help others in a similar situation who could really benefit from learning about EMDR.
So, here is my story of trauma recovery with EMDR therapy – I hope it reaches those who need to hear it.
What is EMDR?
EMDR is short for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. It is a form of therapy that aims to shift the way traumatic events are stored in the brain, relieving symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other symptoms associated with previous trauma.
When you experience a traumatic event, it can be so distressing that your brain is unable to process it like it would a “typical” memory. Instead, it’s stored in a raw form – meaning that every time you recall the event you experience the negative emotions and physical experiences that you felt at the time. This is what is responsible for flashbacks in PTSD.
In EMDR, you “process” these memories for the first time, using the help of bilateral stimulation. It is thought that this allows the memory to shift in the brain so it can be recalled like any other memory would be, removing the layer of distress.
I find that explaining what EMDR is can only do so much into helping you gain insight on the ins and outs of the therapeutic process. Hearing other people’s experiences is what really helps you to understand what the therapy is and how you can relate it to your own experiences.
My story begins at around age five, when I experienced the first of many traumas that I would experience throughout my young life. This was in the form of repeated sexual trauma from another child, which continued for around two years.
This shaped my relationship with myself and others massively. I couldn’t discuss this experience with anyone due to intense confusion and shame, so I grew up believing that I was worthless and I experienced suicidal ideation from around the age of ten.
Around this age, I also became the victim of bullying at school. Peers became aware of my engagement in self-harm and, to children who struggle to understand such a complex issue, this was the perfect opportunity to ridicule.
This of course only added to the shame and isolation I felt, though at the time I wasn’t aware of why I was feeling this way. The emotions I was experiencing got progressively worse until I attempted to take my own life when I was seventeen.
I didn’t know that these events, along with several others, would later come to form what was referred to as my “trauma timeline” in therapy, which in essence was a series of experiences that my brain wasn’t able to process due to the overwhelming emotions I felt at the time. In fact, it wasn’t until I was twenty years old that I even fully acknowledged that these events had happened.
How I came to find EMDR
When I did come to acknowledge them, I was a second-year student studying Psychology with Clinical Psychology. I was feeling the most positive I had felt in my entire life, but everything I was learning in my clinical modules made it impossible to ignore the pain and confusion that I still felt regarding my childhood.
As this pain started to surface I developed severe anxiety and began experiencing frequent intrusive memories and panic attacks. I stopped attending university and once again had little hope for the future.
Despite the difficulties I was experiencing, I still had an underlying desire to learn and better myself, and I managed to pluck up the courage one day to attend a guest lecture on an unknown topic. This topic, I would later learn, was EMDR.
From the moment I heard the words “trauma therapy,” I knew there was a reason I was here in this lecture. I had attempted CBT several times, along with psychodynamic therapy and ACT, but I struggled to even get remotely close to making any progress due to issues with trust and my difficulty opening up.
The EMDR approach sounded completely different, and I knew in my heart it was the missing piece that I had been searching for. I immediately began searching for therapists near me so I could start the process.
The EMDR process
For those of you wanting to learn more about what you might expect from going through EMDR, I’ve categorized the whole process into six steps.
I describe this process from my own experience seeing a private therapist, but I do however acknowledge that this is a luxury that not everybody has access to. In the UK, EMDR therapy is also available on the NHS and in other parts of the world you should check what is covered by your own health insurance.
Finding an EMDR therapist
Firstly, you want to find a therapist that is specially trained in EMDR. Trauma processing is a sensitive process, so you want the right person with the right credentials to help you through it.
As I am in the UK, I found my therapist on the counselling directory. You may also find that you can google something along the lines of “EMDR therapist near me”.
My advice would be to contact several therapists who you like the sound of. Talk to them over the phone or at the very least have an email conversation. This will help you get an idea of how well you connect with them. I cannot stress enough the importance of a good relationship with your therapist!
Once you’ve found a potential therapist, you’ll arrange an initial assessment or consultation. This is an opportunity for you to meet your therapist before committing to therapy. It gives you both a chance to discuss where you’re at and ask any questions you have for each other.
At this stage, I was asked to fill out some diagnostic questionnaires, which revealed that I was suffering from what’s known as complex PTSD. This gave my therapist a greater understanding of my symptoms and how best to work with me going forward. She agreed that EMDR would be the right fit for what I was going through.
If at this stage your therapist thinks that EMDR isn’t the right fit for you, that’s okay too. They should be able to suggest alternative options and point you in the right direction!
Preparing for therapy
EMDR isn’t a therapy that you just jump straight into. Those with an understanding of the complexity of the brain and the way it handles trauma know that it is equally important to prepare yourself for processing as it is to process.
You’ll learn the skills and techniques that you can use to calm and comfort yourself if things get overwhelming, either in a session or at home. You may also create what’s known as a “safe place” – this is a positive memory or imaginary place that you can access at times of need.
It is really helpful if you already have an existing meditation, mindfulness or yoga practice as these techniques will help with your resilience during the therapeutic process.
Creating your trauma timeline
This step may or may not be relevant to you depending on your trauma history. If you have a singular event that you are working with, then this will be the focus of each of your EMDR sessions. However, if you have suffered multiple traumas in your life you will likely be asked to create what’s known as a “trauma timeline”.
To create your timeline, you will mark each event on a continuum. At the start of each session, I was asked which event felt most intense to me, and this is the event we would focus on for that session.
My therapist explained to me that when working with complex trauma, processing one event may cause processing of other events that happened after it, since our traumas are often linked.
This is the core part of therapy and can be a very difficult process to go through. To process a traumatic event, you must allow yourself to not only think about it but also feel any physical sensations that come up while doing so.
While you revisit the trauma, you will follow your therapist’s fingers with your eyes as they move side to side, or you may use an alternative form of bilateral stimulation. After each set of movements, you will discuss what you noticed and repeat the process. You do this until your arousal level has significantly reduced.
At the end of each session, you will then finish with the relaxing techniques you learned in the preparation process to ensure you’re in a stable place to return home.
After you’ve worked through all the experiences on your timeline, you’ll have a follow-up appointment to determine if you’re ready for discharge or if there’s more you need to work on.
During my follow up appointment I filled out the original diagnostic questionnaires again and we found that I no longer matched the criteria for complex PTSD! This was amazing news and I was discharged after just six processing sessions!
My experience with EMDR
As you can probably tell, my EMDR experience was largely a positive one. This therapy was very “successful” and I got the desired outcome that I couldn’t have gained from any other form of therapy.
As a result, I can now think about previous trauma without being overwhelmed by negative emotions and panic. Instead, I think about them as I would with any other memory. I acknowledge that they happened, but I don’t get caught up reliving them and suffering in the present moment.
However, I must be honest and say that EMDR was not an easy process for me to go through by any means. Revisiting traumatic memories can be very intense and I left each session feeling emotionally and physically exhausted.
During processing, I experienced very surreal bodily sensations and cried lots of tears. But I knew that this was a necessary process and it was definitely worth it to get to where I am now.
Is EMDR for you?
This is of course just my experience. If you’re wondering whether EMDR is right for you, here are some guidelines to help you figure it out.
EMDR might be right for you if:
- You’re still suffering the effects of previous traumas in the current life.
- You’ve had little success with other therapies.
- You struggle to talk or open up about your experiences.
- You’re suffering from symptoms of PTSD or complex PTSD.
- You feel ready to face your trauma and work through it.
- A professional has suggested it to you.
EMDR might not be for you if:
- You don’t feel stable enough to work through your trauma at this stage.
- You aren’t aware of any trauma you need to work on and you haven’t tried alternative talking therapies.
- Your symptoms are more consistent with a diagnosis other than PTSD, for which another therapy might be a better option.
- A professional has suggested another type of therapy to you.
You can also check out the following resources if you want to learn more about EMDR.
- EMDR Institute Inc.: Further information about the EMDR process and research
- EMDR Association UK: Information, stories and EMDR therapist directory in UK
- EMDR Association of Australia: Video resources about how the therapy works
- American Psychological Association: Further information about PTSD symptoms and treatment
- Getting Past your Past: Take control of your life with self-help techniques from EMDR therapy (book)
- The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma (book)
- My Honest Experience with EMDR Therapy for Trauma: My original blog post on Hopeful Lotus