Warning: This article contains descriptions of traumatic events which some readers might find upsetting
Trauma is a popular word right now. This is good because it has drawn attention to the emotional and physical legacy of distressing events on those who have been subjected to them. However the term is increasingly used erroneously to refer to generalised suffering or discomfort, which is not what it means.
When I talk about my own trauma, it is in relation to the memory of the sustained exposure to domestic violence that I experienced during my childhood. After years spent talking to people about these experiences, and still finding that I suffered from anxiety and certain phobias, I decided to change tack.
At the beginning of lockdown I started a course of therapy known as eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing, or EMDR. I’d heard of it through Bessel van der Kolk’s celebrated book, The Body Keeps the Score, which makes the claim that many of our most traumatic memories are stored as much in the physical body as in the mind. Ten weeks later, I feel like a new person.
So how does it work?
As the name suggests, EMDR involves moving the eyes from right to left rapidly while recalling traumatic events. But few people seem to know that it can be administered in other ways, too. Because I underwent my treatment under lockdown restrictions, I received EMDR via Zoom in a method that simply required me to cross my arms and tap my shoulders. The point is to stimulate the left and right sides of the brain alternately, to reawaken the past and at the same time store those difficult memories in a less panic-stricken part of the brain which, crucially, doesn’t stimulate the amygdala (the bit of the brain which controls emotions and is responsible for triggering the fight-or-flight response).
By the end of each session, the memory I had focused on had gone from being highly charged to being somewhat neutral: like a scene playing out on a screen but disconnected from my emotional responses.
Because EMDR is focused on processing specific memories, it is also finite. Unlike talking therapies, practitioners can usually give you a rough estimate of how long it will take for you to complete your treatment. For me, one memory per session was enough and at the end of each, my body and my mind would both feel completely exhausted. It’s a gruelling therapy but garners immediate and noticeable effects.
By the end of each session, the memory I had focused on had gone from being highly charged to being somewhat neutral: like a scene playing out on a screen but disconnected from my emotional responses. Each memory became distant and less important. The cumulative effect of this process led to an overall sense of contentment, inner calm and happiness. The results have been quiet but profound.
What’s more, for people who might be embarrassed or ashamed of their past experiences, or suffer from difficulties in communicating, EMDR does not require you to divulge what happened to you. The process led by the practitioner is purely practical, like air traffic control directing you to land while the view from the plane window remains completely private.
Sandi Richman headed up an EMDR practice at the Maudsley Hospital in south London for eight years, administering the therapy to hundreds of people including asylum seekers and refugees from war-torn countries. These patients often, and understandably, had very complex traumas and couldn’t speak English. EMDR was one of the most successful therapies for alleviating their residual flashbacks and panic attacks. Sandi’s success led her to become recognised as one of the leading practitioners in her field.
“EMDR isn’t about opening up a Pandora’s box,” she’s keen to explain. “It isn’t necessary for us to do a spring cleaning of every traumatic memory. Very often if you work on certain memories, there will be a generalised improvement in other areas of the mind. What’s more, it doesn’t involve exposure therapy, which can be very difficult to go through and in that sense is a lot more gentle than other approaches.”
“EMDR also seems to go places that talking therapy alone isn’t able to,” she adds.
EMDR isn’t about opening up a Pandora’s box. It isn’t necessary for us to do a spring cleaning of every traumatic memory. It doesn’t involve exposure therapy, which can be very difficult to go through and in that sense is a lot more gentle than other approaches.Sandi Richman, NHS EMDR CONSULTANT
This was true for me. As I recalled one memory from my early childhood that was hazy and incomplete, I started to get a severe trembling in my right leg. The sensation caused me to remember that I’d been standing on a chair and was nervous about falling off. This was just one instance in which physiological sensations during EMDR enabled me to build a fuller picture of my traumatic memories in order to see them more rationally and constructively.
Where cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) often asks us to confront our fears directly and in the present – the ‘exposure therapy’ that Sandi refers to – EMDR seems to take us on a journey, causing us to build a fuller picture of our memories and at the same time helping us to demystify them and reduce their level of intensity.
With all these benefits then, why might you still not have heard of EMDR? The answer seems to be political. The CBT lobby, for example, is very powerful and there’s a lot of research dedicated to understanding its methods of success. CBT is also far more historically rooted in the psychological profession, having links with earlier behavioural methods that were developed in the early 20th century.
EMDR, by contrast, is relatively nascent. It was ‘discovered’ and published in a paper by Francine Shapiro in 1989. Combined with the fact that its methods are so divergent from more traditional approaches, this means that it probably still suffers a degree of stigma. The lack of research also means that we remain somewhat in the dark about the many other possible benefits. Many people believe that it might be useful in overcoming addiction, for example. There are also big controlled trials currently taking place across Europe exploring its veracity in treating depression and other mental health conditions.
As I recalled one memory from my early childhood that was hazy and incomplete, I started to get a severe trembling in my right leg. The sensation caused me to remember that I’d been standing on a chair and was nervous about falling off.
These efforts mean that the stigma is slowly starting to lift and EMDR is now recognised by the World Health Organization and administered on the NHS, although the waiting lists are still very long. Sandi is training NHS staff around the clock in a bid to make the therapy more widely available. Growing awareness of its potential benefits offers a glimmer of light at a time when tens of thousands of coronavirus survivors are thought to be at risk of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), not to mention the thousands of healthcare professionals who’ve been exposed to the more grim aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sandi describes “a tsunami of mental health problems hitting the NHS” but where PTSD was once a life sentence, treated to varying degrees of success through a combination of talking therapy and medication, we may well have found a far more effective and universal solution that is finite and therefore cheaper than most talking therapies.
I never expected to find inner peace and happiness through a bewildering dance that involves tapping my shoulders in front of someone I’ve never met via Zoom, but here we are. In the future, and hopefully by building awareness, many more people will have the chance to experience EMDR’s life-changing effects.
Like what you see? How about some more R29 goodness, right here?