My EMDR Experience

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Limbic system where EMDR works

A Layman’s Explanation

After my son’s death, I was constantly told that I would never be the same. I was told I would never look at life the same way. Some even insinuated that I would never be happy again.

It wasn’t until I was in year four of grieving that I realized I needed to deal with some things. When Adam first died, I decided to go see a psychologist. I wanted to make sure I was on the right track. I didn’t want to be one of these people who became entrenched and “stuck” in my grieving. He assured me he saw no red flags and I was doing what I needed to do.

Year Four

Fast forward to my fourth year and I realized I wasn’t where I wanted to be in my journey. It is hard to explain but I knew I had done what I could but that something was wrong. The only way I could explain it was that it felt as though I had a rod that ran the length of my body. The slightest jostle and the rod would move. I felt on edge and that I wasn’t safe. It wasn’t anxiety though, it was there all the time and never really left me.

The Journey Begins

That is where my psychologist came in. She is an amazing young mother who was newly trained in EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing). I had heard about EMDR in the past, but it sounded like it was just ‘silly science.’ No one seemed able to explain what it was and how it worked. I went through the process and I was amazed. Although there were no major breakthroughs that I can point to and say that is where it worked, it definitely did. When my sessions were over, I shrugged my shoulders and thought, okay that was different. But as the days went by, I realized something drastic had changed.

To understand EMDR process better, I want to share with you how it worked for me.

My EMDR Experience

The first session, my psychologist explained what would happen. Then we discussed what area of trauma I felt was most significatn. This was my first point of learning. While EMDR is known for helping with PTSD, you don’t have to have to be diagnosed to benefit. Also, what is major trauma for one person may not be for another. When we began the process, she asked me to cross my arms across my chest, my right hand holding the upper part of my left arm. This was March 2020 and so we were doing this virtually. She did the same on her end and then she started asking me questions about how I was feeling, and told me to imagine I was in that situation again.

The first time, I wasn’t able to get past the front door (I found my son in our basement). I was sobbing and shaking, all the while tapping my hands against my upper arms in an alternating pattern (first right, then left, then right then left – not both at the same time). She would help me through it with talking, deep breaths and questions. And that was it. By the end of the one hour session, I was exhausted but calm.

Over the course of several sessions, we went through my memories of finding my son, as well as a couple other traumas in my life. A couple time were were able to meet in person and for those sessions she used a buzzer system. I held one handle in each hand and as we went through my memories, the handles buzzed back and forth. Sounds simple and a bit odd, right? I know. I could give you a big scientific explanation on what happens, but instead I will give you a description as I understand it. Remember this is not medical advice and I am not a qualified therapist.

Your Brain and EMDR

fist showing anatomy of brain

Imagine your brain is like your fist. Clench your hand and turn it so your thumb faces you. When trauma happens in your life, the experience happens in the primitive “fight or flight” part of your brain. That part is located at the base of your palm, hidden underneath (amygdala, part of the limbic system). Sometimes, trauma gets stuck there and does not integrate. If you are looking for a more detailed explanation, there are some great resources online.

By tapping left-right-left-right while reliving the experience, it activates the top two hemispheres that are over top of the fight or flight area and causes the experience to be “released” and integrated into the whole brain where it is supposed to be.

That is a very layman’s explanation – one I’m sure a scientist or psychologist would have a giggle at, but it works for me. And the best part is, it did work for me. The rod is not only stabilized, but it seems to have disappeared entirely.

Carla Howatt is a former politician and a communications professional. She is the author of the book Bearing Witness: One Mother’s Online Journey After Suicide.

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