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EMDR - Knots in the Yarn

How Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Worked for Me

EMDR - Knots in the Yarn

"I'd get to one knot, untie it, and move on to the next one..."

Iím no stranger when it comes to baring my soul. I believe my vulnerability strengthens me. But Iím pretty private about the most traumatic events and patterns in my life, because well, I figure no one really needs to know, we all carry lifeís baggage, and for the most part, there are many things that are nobodyís business.

However, I want to share some thoughts that I hope might help fellow PTSD survivors feel more hopeful. If I can offer insight into something that has truly aided me with long-buried trauma and post-traumatic stress, I kinda feel it is my responsibility to share. Iím just going to put this out there, in the hopes that someone might benefit from it. And, of course Iím not a doctor, and I donít recommend particular therapies because as Iíve learned, a lifesaver for one individual can prove ineffectual or even harmful for another. That being said, I didnít know anything about this therapy until a few months ago, and itís with no exaggeration that I say it changed my life.

Here's how it began:

Quite randomly and without any warning, I came across tangible proof about a long-buried suspicion of abuse Iíd carried with me since I was a young child. Nonetheless, revealing the truth wasnít an Ďaha!í moment; rather, it was an Ďoh my god it all makes sense now, and no wonderÖwhoa, this was the origin of all that happened later on, and how dare this bastard sow the seeds to destroy so many lives?í

Uh-huh, it wasnít the usual garden-variety trauma, anxiety and depression Iíd dealt with over the years. This was the biggest, juiciest, meanest heirloom tomato of a trauma Iíd never even imagined!

Thank goodness my intuition immediately told me that the usual cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) wasnít the answer. I benefited from CBT so many times over my adult years. But now I was stuck. Immobilized. Sick to my stomach. No amount of talking and rethinking was going to put this new monster in its place.

So I contacted a dear friend, a very well-respected psychotherapist, to ask her what I should do. And she recommended a radically different (to me) therapy, along with someone who was very well trained in it.

And for the past two months I have been participating in a psychotherapy called EMDR, or Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing.

Iíve learned how it works, and while it seems deceptively simple, it speaks to the neuroplasticity of the brain (which is what Iíve studied for the past couple of years). Itís quite remarkable, really, how some parts of the brain can take over for what Iíll call the Ďbrokení parts. Not only have I lived this experience, Iíve studied neuroplasticity through brain injury rehabilitation courses through Brock University and the Ontario Brain Injury Association. So while EMDR might seem kinda wacky, it makes sense if you understand how the brain works.

Hereís what happens:

During the first stage, you learn about physical and emotional reactions to trauma. You and your therapist determine how ready you are to focus on your trauma memories in therapy. To help you prepare for this challenging journey, you will learn some new coping skills.

I went in ready to go. I wanted to slap these trauma memories upside the head. I was angry, because I realized my new discovery was intrinsically linked to pretty much every choice Iíve ever made in my entire life. How Ďbout that? Pissed? You bet I was. I wanted to put this shit in its place.

I put my brain in gear and off we went. And I did learn some new coping skills that certainly helped me get through the toughest times between appointments.

My therapist and I worked through an entire childhood memory assessmentófrom the time I was three until I was about 18. This part is completed through a couple of sessions (for me, anyway, because there were several memory points we had to work on). This helped us determine what we needed to further explore.

At that point you identify the upsetting memory Ďtargetí you want to focus onó including negative thoughts, feelings and physical sensations related to the memory. You might discover that your Ďtargetí isnít the memory for which you initially sought therapy, if other trauma pops up in your assessment. Donít worry about which one to pickóyouíll eventually get to where you need to be. Personally, at this point I recall feeling sick to my stomach, like Iíd swallowed lead cement.

Anyway, you hold that Ďtargetí memory in your mind while focusing on a back-and-forth motion (like a flashing light, or a tone that beeps in one ear at a time) or a repetitive motion (like tapping your collarbones with your fingertips) until your stress level dissipates. I know, it sounds weird, right? The exercise continues for about 30 seconds at a time, and then you will talk about your thoughts and feelings. You take those thoughts and feelings into the next 30-second-ish exercise. For me, each short exercise felt like I was unraveling a long string of knotted yarnóIíd get to one knot, untie it, and move on to the next until the yarn was free of knots.

Eventually, you will focus on a positive feeling as you hold the memory in your mind. If you have several targets to work through, you can do thatóone at a time. I found that as I started working through my trauma memories, each subsequent one became a little easier to deal with.

Due to COVID, my therapist and I used a private version of Zoom for our sessions. Initially, I tapped my collarbones during the exercises, but then we switched to the flashing lights and that worked better for me. I was a little hesitant, because of the way my brain reacts to flashing lights, but it was fineÖwell, better than fine. It worked really well.

The aftermath:

EMDR doesnít obliterate memories of trauma but it obliterates the stress response associated with those memories. I can think of them now without eliciting a stress response. Previously, my heart rate would increase, my breath would become shallow, and I would become visibly upset when recalling traumatic events.

Sure, bad things were done to me and I experienced events and horrors that never should have happened. Iíll never forget that.

But now, Iím calm. Itís like Iíve moved the traumatic memories to a different, safer place in my brain, where they can be stored without delivering a shot of fear and shame and horror whenever they arise.

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