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.