A Therapist’s Experience Receiving EMDR Therapy

I am a new therapist who has recently had the privilege of beginning my dream of providing trauma therapy with Rising Tides Counselling. My name is Melanie Barber and I began my career providing trauma informed care in emergency mental health and addictions as well as impatient mental health with children and teens. During this time, I always wanted to assist clients living with trauma in a more tangible way.  I had heard about EMDR therapy during my training as a clinical Social Worker, and my initial reaction was how strange it sounded! Processing trauma with eye movements? I was sure this was pseudo science or a new age healing tactic. After hearing more about its effectiveness, from colleagues, psychiatrists and other therapists, I was excited when I was asked to become trained in EMDR and provide it to clients at Rising Tides. I was intrigued to learn that as part of my training that occurs over days, that I would not only engage in intensive training but I would also be experiencing what EMDR therapy is like firsthand. 

I thought it would be helpful to describe what experiencing EMDR on a smaller scale felt like for me to help those who may be curious or even a bit intimidated about starting this type of therapy.

EMDR Basics

According to the EMDR International Association (EMDRIA) web page the regulatory body that provides training, certification, clinical consultation and research for EMDR, “our brains have a natural way to recover from traumatic memories and events. This process involves communication between the amygdala (the alarm signal for stressful events), the hippocampus (which assists with learning, including memories about safety and danger), and the prefrontal cortex (which analyzes and controls behavior and emotion). Stress responses are part of our natural fight, flight, or freeze instincts. When distress from a disturbing event remains, the upsetting images, thoughts, and emotions may create an overwhelming feeling of being back in that moment, or of being “frozen in time.” EMDR therapy helps the brain process these memories and allows normal healing to resume. The experience is still remembered, but the fight, flight, or freeze response from the original event is resolved.”

The EMDRIA website goes on to state that “Ongoing research supports positive clinical outcomes showing EMDR therapy as a helpful treatment for disorders such as anxiety, depression, OCD, chronic pain, addictions, and other distressing life experiences. Many national and international organizations recognise EMDR as an effective treatment from the American Psychiatric Association to Veteran’s Affairs and an ever-increasing number of therapists, psychologist and psychiatrists are utilizing this treatment.” 

In a nutshell, by using eye movements (bilateral stimulation) in EMDR facilitates your brain to heal itself from trauma much like your body heals from an injury or illness and does not require one to discuss the events in detail like other modalities and for some individuals, move along at a faster pace.

What does EMDR Feel like?

After the academic and theoretical part of the training, we were asked to pick a lower intensity negative experience that we were comfortable sharing and processing in our group and have another therapist in our group go through the phases of EMDR with us. 

Keep in mind that everyone’s experience will be different and will progress at different speeds and have different experiences. Everyone’s experiences and brains are different and will bring up material unique to that person. We are engaging your brain to heal itself and to guide the individual through the experience but “stay out of the way” and allow the brain to do what it needs to do to process the trauma. However, my experience and the experience of those around me had common threads that could be helpful to know about.

My experience with EMDR targeting a lower intensity experience felt initially like the emotions connected to the memory became more and more distant. I was able to think of the memory and not feel the usual intense emotions that always came up for me. At the beginning it felt like waves of calm over my body and my normally tense muscles in my jaw and shoulders eased. I felt lighter and at ease.  Each set of BLS (bilateral stimulation or eye movements) lessened the negative emotions or beliefs that were connected to the memory. The memory was still there but the emotions got smaller and less intense. With each set of BLS the therapist would ask “what comes up for you now”.  It may have been another memory, an emotion, sometimes even nothing. Anything that comes up is ok and all part of what my brain was bringing up and had connection to the memory.  Scaling questions were also asked through the process and what had started as a 7/10 in intensity eventually got to a 0/10.

One aspect of this that stood out to me the most was my ability to think about the event from a different perspective. Because of my brain’s ability to reprocess this memory and for the emotional response to decrease, I could think about it in a more helpful way. I realized the event that caused my distress wasn’t due to anything being wrong with me.  I surprised myself with my ability to state an entirely new and more positive understanding of the event. I even said out loud at one point “wow! Where did that come from!”. I could access positive aspects that came from the experience even though it was and always will be a negative experience. The memory was there and is still part of my story, but I now came to an entirely new understanding of it.  I could connect positive beliefs about myself to it almost despite myself. The usual entanglement of thoughts connected to this memory were now free. 

After processing this with my colleagues, I felt lighter as the weight of years of guilt and a negative belief about myself had melted away. My outlook was brighter, and it almost felt too good to be true but the experience was undeniable. 

EMDR isn’t a catchall “cure” and this was an example using a lower intensity experience. The progress of EMDR can be slow for some and more difficult experiences can take longer to process. It can be used in addition to other treatment modalities such as Cognitive Behaviour Therapy or Dialectical Behaviour Therapy. Integrating other treatment approaches can also help process trauma and the negative emotions to become unstuck. EMDR can be used in addition to or as the sole method of trauma treatment. 

If you are wondering about if this treatment may be helpful for you, I encourage you to learn about it, give it a try or book a consult. If it isn’t for you, treatment can be stopped altogether or paced at a rate that meets your tolerance. You and your therapist can work out a treatment plan specific to you in a way that feels as safe as possible. Feeling free from long held unhelpful beliefs, negative emotions and trauma is worth it.

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