EMDR Training: A Trauma Therapist’s Experience
Last week I and several of my colleagues here at MBC had the exciting opportunity to start learning how to administer EMDR. EMDR, or Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, is a fascinating modality that operates on the principle that traumatic experiences impair the brain’s ability to transfer the memories of such experiences from short-term storage into long-term storage, effectively blocking our ability to move on. This explains why people can talk through their trauma and process it intellectually but continue to experience symptoms such as heightened physical responses to stress, flashbacks, and more importantly, negative self-perception. Trauma impacts not only the cognitive processes of the brain, but also causes changes in its emotional and physical regulation centers as well as short- and long-term memory storage, so we must target each of these parts of the brain to achieve true healing.
How can we rewire the brain, then? The creator of EMDR, Francine Shapiro, initially theorized that certain eye movements might jump-start the brain’s ability to consolidate memories that are stuck in short-term, much like the way our minds use dreams during REM sleep to work through the day’s highs and lows. Her initial work focused on side-to-side eye movements, usually guided by the therapist’s fingers or using a light bar that displays a moving dot of colored light. Shapiro found that repeated sets of these eye movements performed while the participant simultaneously reviewed their traumatic experience in their mind allowed the client to desensitize the memory. She went on to realize that the effect wasn’t limited to eye movements but was in fact associated with “dual attention stimulation (DAS),” that is, tactile or auditory inputs that alternate between sides of the body. Other forms of DAS include patterned sounds played through headphones, buzzing devices held in the hands, or even body movements such as tapping on alternating sides of the body or marching in place. If you think about the first things we experience as humans- the heartbeat of our parent, heard in the womb, or being rocked from side to side as a distressed infant- it makes sense that going back to these rhythmic, bilateral stimuli would help to reset our nervous systems. If this sounds like magic to you, well, in the words of classic science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
The first half of the training took place over three days. We learned the history of EMDR, reviewed the research, and discussed the inner workings of the nervous system. Later, we witnessed a live demonstration of EMDR. One of my fellow trainees volunteered to undergo a session, wishing to target a traumatic experience they had while working in healthcare. They had initially rated this memory quite high on a scale of disturbance that ranged from 0-10, somewhere between 6-7. After assessing the strength of the disturbing memory, they were asked to share the negative cognition they held as a result of this memory. A negative cognition in this context means a change in the way we think about ourselves as a result of trauma, such as “I’m not good enough,” or “I’m incompetent.” Finally, they identified a positive cognition they wanted to hold instead, such as “I did the best I can, and it was enough.” The trainer led them through a series of “butterfly hugs,” which are performed by crossing the hands over the chest- imagine the “Wakanda Forever” salute, along with tapping on the collarbones, alternating between sides.
The participant performed these taps while mentally reviewing the most powerful image of the traumatic memory and holding the negative cognition in their mind. Between roughly minute-long sets of taps, the trainer asked the participant what they had noticed. Had the disturbance level changed? Had their mind gone to another aspect of the memory? If so, the clinician told them, “Keep going with that.” After almost an hour of these sets of taps, the disturbance rating shrank to zero, and the positive belief was firmly in place in its stead. What an astonishing response! I couldn’t wait to experience this for myself during our practical training session, although I must confess, I was a bit skeptical it would work that well for me.
That afternoon, I worked in a small group with two of my fellow trainees. We took turns delivering and experiencing EMDR over the next few hours. When it was my turn to participate as the client, I decided I wanted to try using auditory tones for my dual attention stimulus. I tend to be extremely sensitive to sound, having intensely emotional responses to music as well as being able to hear the high-pitched hum of a tv from the other side of the house, so I figured using my headphones would be the most effective intervention. I cued up an audio program that would play metronome taps on alternating sides. Guided by my colleague, I called to mind a painfully traumatic memory from a year and a half ago that had left me with a frustratingly overactive stress response to work-related issues. I concentrated on the memory with the metronome clicking away in either ear. During the first set, I could see the faces of the other people involved like they were sitting in front of me. During the second set, I was hit by a massive wave of emotion that I struggled to name. “Keep going with that; you’re doing great,” my colleague told me. During the third set, I felt the emotion shift to something I could best describe as righteous indignation. “I didn’t deserve the way I was treated,” I said to myself, and I kept going with it.
During subsequent sets, my mind moved on to focus on the people who had stepped in to help me when things had gotten dark, and I felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude. After the gratitude washed through me like a wave, it left behind a tremendous feeling of pride- those people helped me because I asked them for help. I thought to myself, “I made that happen because I fought so hard.” We kept going with that. As the gratitude and pride receded, they left in their wake the calm certainty that not only had I done the best I could in a bad situation, but that I could also handle anything that came my way because I am phenomenal at sticking up for myself. I called up the memory and felt nothing negative at all. I was floored to find that this experience that had haunted me for so long had been defused, defanged, desensitized.
As I attempted to describe to my groupmates what I had perceived during the session, I could actually feel my brain shifting memories around in the back of my mind. I struggled to articulate because my mind felt like a closet in the middle of being rearranged. One of the wilder parts that I had noticed during the session was that the subjective speed of the metronome recording had seemed to change from set to set, speeding up and slowing down as my mind rearranged itself. That night I had intensely vivid dreams and woke up the next day feeling like I wanted to sleep for two more days, both of which are typical after-effects of EMDR treatment. When I called to mind the old painful memory, it felt faint and washed out, and almost trivial. I had gone from a skeptic to a true believer. How remarkable, I thought, I was cured alright.
As a clinician who practices both acupuncture and psychotherapy, I’ve long been a believer in using the body to treat the body when it comes to trauma. Now that I’ve finally experienced EMDR for myself, I’m even more excited to add this tool to my toolbox. Learn more about the basic facts of EMDR in our recent post, here.
Written by Mind Body Co-op Psychotherapist & Acupuncturist, Sue Cook, MS, MSW, L.Ac., LSW. Sue has a Master’s degree in Traditional East Asian Medicine from Pacific College of Health and Science and a Master’s in Social Work from Loyola University Chicago. They have been in practice as an acupuncturist for the last eight years and recently became a licensed social worker. Their approach as a therapist has been heavily influenced by their work in Traditional East Asian Medicine and they offer client-centered compassion-based therapy that incorporates methods such as CBT, Solution Focused Brief Therapy, and narrative therapy.
Mind Body Co-op is Chicago’s only space for individuals to discover, explore, and heal what is occurring internally at the cognitive, emotional, and physical levels. This unique, holistic approach to treatment and wellness is born out of the belief that examining the cognitive, emotional, and physical pieces and how they intersect helps lead to uncovering your full potential by providing thoughtful, collaborative, and complete integrative mental health care. We offer a variety of clinical services, including individual psychotherapy, group psychotherapy, psychological/neuropsychological assessments, medication management, CPT (comprehensive transitional program), somatic mindfulness, somatic groups, DBT, adventure therapy, therapeutic yoga, and more. We provide culturally competent services in English, Mandarin, Spanish, French, Russian & Arabic.
Clarke, A. C. (2013). Profiles of the Future: An Inquiry into the Limits of the Possible. Hachette UK.
Shapiro, F. (2017). Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy: Basic principles, protocols, and procedures. Guilford Publications.