Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Survivors Speak: Using EMDR to Heal

So here I am, deep in the North Carolina woods in an enormous house built into the side of a mountain. My bedroom overlooks a lake, smooth as glass, twisting through the pines toward the mountains that rise in the distance. I may not leave, as scheduled, on Sunday!

To continue our EMDR exploration: today, the words of a survivor living with PTSD, learning about EMDR, and experiencing the positive effects of treatment....

I began healing from the haunting effects of living with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder when I met my therapist, a wonderful, intelligent, and deeply caring man who is trained in treating trauma and in EMDR. The connection I made with my therapist, learning to trust him, seeing that he would journey with me into my darkest, most horrifying memories and stay with me as I worked through them, has been one of the most important in my life. Connections such as these heal on a deep level.

But what I have come to understand and have experienced firsthand is that all the talking in the world, all the understanding about what happened to me and how it affected me, would only go so far in healing the trauma that I have suffered.

What pioneers in the field of trauma have learned is that PTSD is directly connected to unprocessed memory.

The knowledge they are acquiring about what happens to memory when we are traumatized is revolutionizing the mental health field.

I am not a doctor or a therapist. What follows is my understanding of how EMDR helps process trauma, and my experience working with EMDR. I offer it to you as a springboard for your own investigation into using EMDR with a trained professional to help you heal from trauma.

People have what Dr. Francine Shapiro, the therapist who developed EMDR, calls an “Information Processing System.” We take in explicit information, the stories of what happens to us (“I went to the store”) and knowledge of time and place (“It was a Wednesday at noon in my parents’ neighborhood”) and implicit information, which includes feelings, sights, sounds, and body sensations. All of this information is processed in our minds, and becomes incorporated into our experience of the world. It is our story, and it is how we learn about ourselves and the world.
During trauma, the Information Processing System may be interrupted. We get overwhelmed, what happens to us is too much to process, and the explicit and implicit information about the traumatic event (or often, events) gets stored in different parts of the brain. In a way, trauma shatters our psyches. Whether we remember all or part of the trauma doesn’t matter; what matters is that the event isn’t fully integrated, so that the pain of it, the sights and sounds around it, the story of it, remains, in a way, scattered about it our minds.

For some trauma survivors, traumatic events may play over and over in the mind, haunting our dreams or our waking moments; for others, the events may be stored deep in our psyche where they cannot easily be accessed. Either way, traumatized people are terrified, seemingly without reason. We are continually responding to life as though the trauma were still occurring, as though we were continually reliving it.

There are several hypotheses about how EMDR works. One is that stimulating the right and left sides of the brain simulates REM, the time in sleep where we process the events of the day. How EMDR works is less important to me than that it works: With the help of a trained therapist, we can re-connect the implicit and explicit information surrounding a trauma, and often neutralize our response to it. We stop reliving it. We have a story, set in a time and space, and all of the terrible negative emotions and beliefs about ourselves and the world that came out of the trauma are processed and transformed. Recalling the exact details of the trauma is unnecessary—the brain knows, with some help from a therapist, how to heal its wounds. I know people who have healed traumas that occurred when they were babies.

Emotion is energy in motion. EMDR helps trauma survivors access and move all the stuck emotions (or energy) around an event. With each trauma I have processed, in small and significant ways, my life has slowly become my own. I have a story of my life, and it is one that I can tell without reliving the agony of the events that make up part of this story.

EMDR has helped me reclaim my life. It is not quick and easy solution for people with complex trauma, but it is a powerful one. I have more space to move in my life, to make decisions about what I want, to know who I am and have always been. My “mirror” is being wiped clean, and I can see myself and the world from the perspective of one who has been wounded and healed.

I used to get so frustrated with myself. I believed I was constitutionally incapable of taking care of myself, of having a “normal,” balanced reaction to life, of making good decisions, or of setting aside the painful memories of my past. I was not incapable. I was simply too overwhelmed. Doing EMDR and embracing the help offered me by a loving, knowledgeable therapist and a diligent, brilliant psychiatrist, opened up enough space inside for me to learn how to find peace and balance in my life. Because I am not constantly in a state of terror and overwhelm, I can actually use the tools I’ve learned, including meditation, mindfulness, deep breathing, and asking others for help. For this, I will always be grateful.

For more information about EMDR and a list of EMDR therapists, go to the EMDR International Association’s web site. David Baldwin’s Trauma Pages have a number of excellent articles on memory and trauma processing.

(Photo: morganmarilyn70)

1 comment:

Elizabeth Stanfill said...

What an excellent resource.

Thank you.