EMDR Hacks

photo credit: MFer Photography

photo credit: MFer Photography

A little knowledge can go a long way  

Sometimes people don't want to work on their past trauma because it feels too painful, the idea of opening it up is frightening, the thought of letting go of control is overwhelming.  EMDR has some safeties built in to the protocols to make the process less difficult.  I also feel that giving my clients a better understanding of the process will help them feel more agency and confidence when going into the work.  I teach my clients all of the following, but I think it will be useful for anyone beginning EMDR work.

The general process of EMDR is that I ask questions to elicit the traumatic memory, thoughts, and feelings we're working on; I do this to bring the scene alive and activate the neural networks associated with the specific trauma or issue.  Depending on our mutually agreed upon focus, I might ask the client to bring all of those sensations and feelings together and see if he or she can trace them back to an earlier memory (which may or may not seem related).  I then add some form of bilateral stimulation, and from that point on most of the processing is done by the client through free association.  The different regions of the brain begin to work together, and create a solution or resolution that is true and relevant for the client.  People process in different ways, some process silently, some process while talking, some express a lot of emotion, some feel the emotion but don't express any.  I will be watching for changes in body language and affect, and looking for a moment of catharsis or release.  When I see something that looks promising, I'll ask if it's a good moment to pause and check-in.  This is one of the moments where I want my clients to be empowered to make a choice.  

Knowing when to keep going

If you are still actively processing when I check-in with you, I would ask that you shake your head, or in some other way indicate that I shouldn't interrupt you, and that you want to keep going.  When positive work is happening it's often better to maintain the momentum of processing.  When you stop and start talking, your attention comes back to the room, and back to me; in order to express your process verbally, you disengage from that live neural network associated with the pain.  Sometimes it might be difficult to access it again to keep processing.

Knowing when to pause

That said, there are times, when it's appropriate to step away from the emotion, and reground in the therapy room.  If the memory becomes too painful that's something that is important to communicate; there are ways to lessen the intensity.  If we liken the process to playing a string instrument; it's necessary that the emotions be gently plucked, but they don't need to be violently twanged.

If you lose touch with the memory, or lose focus in the processing, if you feel a sense of dissociation or drifting, those are all good moments for us to communicate and regroup, as well.

Negative loops

Another thing to bear in mind is that when processing, if you feel like you're stuck in a negative thought loop, or a negative emotion; if you're trying to find your way out, but you're just not feeling any movement or shifts, that is important to communicate.  Part of my training is learning ways to help you out of those situations, and my experience has taught me to use EMDR creatively to match the needs of my clients in those moments.

Having confidence in the process

There are several ways that clients will gain trust in the efficacy of EMDR.  Some trust will come with that first big moment of epiphany or catharsis.  That can feel like an emotional and physical release, a lightening, a loosening, a relaxation, a kind of freedom, or peace, or a sense of becoming unstuck; it might be acceptance or congruence of something you've had difficulty facing; or it might be a release of sadness or anger you've been holding inside and carrying with you.  It will be different for every person, and every memory, but it tends to be a neutral, positive, or at the very least healthful feeling.

Another way clients come to trust EMDR is through repeated successes.  Clients gain confidence that no matter the difficulty of the process, there is an end somewhere, and they will get there eventually.  This deeply felt understanding lends them the courage to take emotional risks, and brave the discomfort, or pain of the process; this willingness to throw themselves into the work often translates into faster processing.

EMDR is a fluid, instinctive, natural, and creative process.  The bilateral stimulation is healing and soothing in and of itself.  Another way to develop confidence in the process is to realize you can't really do it wrong.  It can be made easier or more difficult, and of course easier is preferable, but both will get you there.  The most important thing you can do is to honestly communicate your experience, so that the therapist can help minimize the difficulty of the process.  

Working with resistance

As a therapist, I often hear about resistance in clients as something that's difficult, or negative.  I have a different perspective on it; I actually celebrate it.  Resistance serves a good function, it's the way your subconscious protects you; when a painful memory begins to surface your subconscious starts to throw objections and self-protective logic into the path, you might even feel a physical discomfort or recoil.  The reason I love working with resistance is that it's like a big neon sign saying "this is what we need to work on!  Here's where the pain is!"  Which is another way of saying "once we've worked through this, here's where the relief and change will be!"  Not only that, but if we know we're dealing with resistance we can temporarily shift focus to process the resistance first; this is a tangential way of processing and will likely lead to a decrease in the pain of the original target, therefore making it easier to process when we address it directly.

Resistance might also show up between sessions, and in a very similar way.  If you're about to begin working on something particularly difficult, and suddenly finances and scheduling become the priority, when they weren't before, that's something to think about.  This isn't limited to EMDR processing, but it's useful information all the same!

If you can learn to recognize your resistance, it can become a signal of impending success and give you the confidence to jump into difficult work.

If I think of any other EMDR hacks, I'll add to this post later.