EMDR in Real Time

With all this talk about EMDR, I have been asked, “Yeah, but what is it? What do you do exactly?”

That’s a question I would ask.  I would want to know.  “Trauma work” sounds ominous.  So, what does it look like? Let’s talk about that.

I’ve already laid the foundation for the methodology behind EMDR, but, essentially, what you are doing when you do trauma work is addressing and healing core beliefs.  Core beliefs are what seem to anchor traumatic memories to that maladaptively processed part of our brains, and core beliefs also keep the past feeling like the present particularly if you developed a core belief during a traumatic event which many of us do.

For example, I have a core belief that is lodged in my brain, and it surfaces during extreme trauma.  That core belief is: “Always fight.  Always win.  Always survive.”  This doesn’t feel like something I believe with all my heart.  I don’t chant this mantra and feel warm and fuzzy.  That’s not how this core belief functions.  It almost feels like a line of code.  There is almost no emotional content attached to this “core belief”.  When I, however, find myself in a circumstance when I am squeezed beyond what I can tolerate, this code begins to play–“Always fight. Always win.  Always survive.”

Is this a good core belief? That depends on who you ask.  This is the Delta Force mantra, and it was drilled into me by my father who was a member of the special forces in a branch of the military.  I don’t like that something of this nature is in my head largely because he put it there through hours of military-like torture during my childhood.  On the other hand, this core belief has enabled me to survive extreme circumstances and acquire mental resiliency along the way.  Some core beliefs that you acquire can be useful even though they aren’t really yours.  Keep that in mind as you do your work.

So, when you sit down with your therapist to do EMDR, you will have a specific memory in mind that you want to process.  You will discuss the memory with your therapist.  They will ask you questions about it, judging for themselves how intense the memory is for you, and whether or not you are dissociative around this memory.  It’s necessary to know that because a great deal of emotional content is filled in during EMDR, and the goal is to safely process that content.

EMDR itself simply requires sitting in a chair.  Each therapist will do something different.  Some therapists will have you hold in each hand something that lightly vibrates in order to stimulate each hand on and off.  My therapist merely had me follow the movement of his hand back and forth for 60 to 90 seconds at a time.  The eyes must move in EMDR.  This is how the brain is activated.  During each 60 to 90-second interval, you insert yourself into the memory you are trying to process and see what your brain shows you.  Your brain will reveal very interesting things to you that you most likely forgot.

The first memory I chose for EMDR this time around was a childhood memory centered around my father and his wife.  My father was more abusive than my mother.  My mother’s intention most of the time was never to deliberately abuse.  She is a victim of life as much as I am in some ways.  He, on the other hand, was deliberately and systematically abusive, using the mutilation of animals and physical and psychological torture to try to breakdown my personality.  Consequently, I grew up utterly terrified of him, but, at the same time, secretly defiant.  To this day, however, I struggle with freezing and not being able to speak when I am startled or feeling extreme fear.  This is all due to past trauma.  Most of my remaining traumatic memories in childhood revolve around him.

So, the EMDR session merely begins with recalling the memory from the best point, and, during recall, watching my therapist’s fingers move back and forth.  He stops the clock, so to speak, and asks what I experienced in terms of bodily sensations, emotions, and memory recall.  He will also ask what thoughts came to mind.  Painstakingly, we went through that first memory.  I remembered certain details that I had forgotten.  My therapist had to pause once or twice.  He cried when I cried and said, “I don’t like to pass judgment as a therapist, but I gotta say…your father was a very bad man.”

Yeah, he was.

Nothing new came through for me until the end.  During the final round, remembering the worst of it, I heard the thoughts of my six year-old self come forward loud and clear.  My father was physically abusing me in a brutal and somewhat sexual manner.  And, I heard my very young self say to herself, “I hate you.  I am NOT bad!”

After my therapist’s fingers stopped moving, he asked, “What did you remember?” I told him.  There was nothing new in terms of my memory of the events other than I was reliving the physical aspect of the abuse.  I did not remember, however, that, at that age, I believed myself to be good.  I knew that he was wrong, and I didn’t deserve what he did to me.  The shock and trauma of the abuse overrode an underlying core belief that actually served me and would serve me now.

That put a completely different spin on that memory.  Yes, I was a victim, but I was a defiant victim.  I knew the truth.  I just had to endure what he was dishing out, and I survived it mentally intact.  We discussed the emotional content of the memory.  It was deemed adaptively processed.  Sometimes when a foundational memory like this gets processed, other memories that were attached to this one by default are automatically processed, too.  Sometimes it’s just a matter of finding the right starting point.  This is why EMDR provides resolution so quickly in certain circumstances.  Address the core belief, and every memory with the matching core belief is affected.

That’s EMDR.  It is one of the best ways to engage your trauma head-on and process it while healing at the same time.  It is highly effective and worth every bit of intention and effort that you bring to it.


7 Comments on “EMDR in Real Time

  1. I read your post this morning and had to stop and come back to it, I have to say it is not possible for me to not be affected by your story. I don’t know what that means about me but I can’t help but cry as your therapist did when hearing your story.

    I am so sorry you had to endure the childhood you had.

    I it is hard to switch to Mr. Technical after the pain that comes with reading your pain because it seems almost disrespectful or as though it makes light of the pain. I absolutely don’t mean to make light of the painful times you share, I know you know that I just have to tell you that.

    That being said, I have been meaning to thank you for the exposure to the EMDR treatment process. I never heard of it until you mentioned it and what is also interesting is, when I went back through the emails from the therapist I found for my daughter, one that has night time hours, single parenting is tough in regard to dr. appointments, I noticed she does the EMDR treatment, what are the odds. So, I may be superstitious or it may be an act of Providence but it is definitely something that I can’t but be left in awe about. When things in my life line up or fall into place is such a precise way, I take notice so thank you for your part in that.

    Unraveling the mystery is a huge help, I couldn’t even begin to make sense of the treatment name. Something that I find amazing also was during the second half of your writing a specific event just popped into my mind so I think I have an event, as for the core belief, I don’t have a clue. Somehow when dad got back from Vietnam, the entire house, became hate and anger, why I associate a physical structure with emotions, I can’t tell you now other than it is a way of keeping my dad innocent or guiltless for his behavior, I didn’t expect any of what has come up to surface so it makes me think I may actually get some real results from treatment this time. I can’t tell you how many therapists and counselors I have been to and somehow I knew within a few hours that I wasn’t going to get any help from them. My stuff has for years been right under the surface like baking soda and vinegar but I just don’t trust so having a therapist I do trust now is a good thing.

    Shew, I am a chatty one. Well, I again, I can’t thank you enough for being here at this particular time, with the specific information about EMDR. How does it feel to know you have helped someone so much? I hope it fills your heart with peace and happiness.

    • It actually sounds like you are making really good connections. Some core beliefs that came up for me associated with this memory were “I feel helpless,” and “I don’t know who to trust.” Both of those were extremely good things to uncover. In terms of the trust topic, there is a vital difference between, “I can’t trust anyone,” and “I don’t know who to trust.” One speaks to an inability while the other one speaks to confusion, suspicion, and fear. But NOT inability or attachment problems. HUGE difference and actually very reassuring. So, this is also part of the EMDR process. Finding the underlying visceral emotional embers that keep our beliefs and thoughts in place that create our personalities and behavioral responses. Adequately process those visceral emotional responses, and you have a shot at actually healing the underdeveloped or poorly developed parts of personality that get in the way of healing and sabotage attempts at building out the life you really need and want. So, it’s an excellent and relatively smooth process.

      My father was in Vietnam as well. And, the belief that one’s prior victimization exonerates them is very common in victims. Our brains cannot make sense of parental abuse. So, we coddle the victim personas of our parents and overcompensate for their deficiencies casting blame elsewhere. That’s codependency, and that actually is part of a core belief structure. “I am responsible for my parent’s bad behavior,”…”I make my parent angry by doing X,”…”If only I could do Y better, then my parent would be happy.” These are all core beliefs. The big one? “I am responsible for my parent’s happiness and well-being.” These are all codependent core beliefs.

      These are very painful beliefs to change because codependency changes a personality, but it can be done.

      Well done though. Single parenting is hard. So, good job in continuing to seek out something better. It’s not easy at all.

  2. I am not even deep into “it” yet and I can already feel a strong over sensitiveness, this isn’t going to be easy, but I do tend to spend too much time in my head so I think I need to go outside more.

    • Well, if you can write down any thoughts that stand out, then that could really help your process. I have found that my brain is more than happy to help me out by running memories up and down whether I like it or not, but there is usually something there.

    • It feels paltry…but there are no platitudes here. Just making your way through it. It does end.

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