By Teresa Allen
EMDR is a type of psychotherapy which helps people recover from difficult memories, especially traumatic ones. Many people in recovery from addictions have difficult memories in their past–memories that led up to their addiction or memories that resulted from using and drinking. About 60 percent of people in recovery have experienced serious trauma in their lives. Some of these old memories lead to repeated relapses.
Starting from the symptoms or complaints from your life today, an EMDR therapist will help you identify the memories that are contributing to your current difficulties. By following a procedure developed by Francine Shapiro, the therapist helps you resolve the current issue by reprocessing the old memory. That’s where the long name comes from-eye movement desensitization and reprocessing. When the technique was first used it involved eye movements; nowadays clients can choose the type of bilateral stimulation they like best.
It is always best to develop a solid recovery program with lots of support before beginning any depth psychotherapy while in early recovery. But some issues can be tackled sooner than was once believed. Sometimes people in recovery get stuck or relapse because these old wounds have not been addressed. The therapist will help you determine at what point in your recovery it is best to begin EMDR work.
EMDR Therapy Facilitates Natural Healing
Just as the human body has a built-in process for healing threats to its physical health, we also have a natural healing process for mental health after we have experienced a shock or emotional trauma. Our mind continually makes connections for us that are geared toward health and survival. In the 1980s, it was discovered that bilateral stimulation–alternately stimulating the right and left side of the brain accelerates the natural process of return to mental health.
Theory of EMDR Therapy
Memories of traumatic experiences get stored in frozen memory networks. They can’t link to other more adaptive memory networks. The natural healing process gets sidetracked. With EMDR therapy, it is possible for traumatic memories to be “unstuck” and to link up with more adaptive, healthy memories. The precise way EMDR therapy works is not yet understood, but it has been studied widely and found to be a very effective therapy for processing traumatic memories.
Lighting up the Traumatic Memory Network
After history taking and preparation, the therapist asks you to identify the images, emotions, self-beliefs, and bodily sensations linked to the difficult memory. This activates, or lights up, the frozen traumatic memory network and prepares it to link with healthier, more adaptive memories, associations, and thoughts. Remembering the associations connected to the shock or trauma can be painful, but you are supported in the session and given tools to manage the feelings as they occur. These involve safe place exercises and positive internal resources you can use to self-soothe. This gives you a way to deactivate the old traumatic memory network when you need or want to and to slow down the pace of the processing when you want to.
Managing the “Lit Up” State
The therapist helps you experience a balance between activation and safety that is just right for processing the difficult memory. In this “zone” the thoughts, emotions, images, feelings and body sensations of the memory are activated, but you are not so engulfed in the memory to be unaware that “That was then and this is now” and that you are safely in the present moment in your therapist’s office. While you are in that middle-place of one foot in the past and one foot in the therapist’s office, the therapist begins left-right stimulation. There are various types of left-right stimulation and the therapist and you together decide which is best for you. Whatever type you choose, the EMDR processing makes it possible to connect to more health-producing thoughts, images, and associations. You just notice your thoughts, feelings, body sensations, and emotions as they occur while experiencing the left-right stimulation. Always remember to not censor anything. This free association process brings up a variety of sensations, feelings, and thoughts as your mind works through the memory. After each set of left-right stimulus, the therapist checks in to see what you are experiencing.
Letting Whatever Happens Happen
EMDR therapy may bring up seemingly unrelated associations. You just let whatever is happening happen. Every so often you report briefly on what you are experiencing when the therapist checks in. It is important not to censor anything! You may experience painful or difficult sensations, but it is best to stay with the sensations with the support of your therapist. Moving through the wave can be deeply healing. It makes it possible for the mind to link up more adaptive memory networks to the old, frozen traumatic memories. The therapist monitors the process as it unfolds, looking for signs that it is on target. Sometimes things change and sometimes they don’t. The therapist is there to assist when things get sidetracked. If things are not progressing, the therapist changes techniques or adds information to facilitate the natural healing process at work.
The Body Remembers!
You will pay special attention to physical sensations during EMDR therapy. Focusing on body sensations provides an entryway to the old stuck memories. You are asked to be aware of and report on physical sensations during the session. Releasing these physical sensations is often the key to healing trauma. Whatever issue or challenge you are working with in therapy, it probably has a past, present, and future element. EMDR therapy is used to work with all three aspects of an issue. The therapist helps you target the issue from these three perspectives.
The Work Continues
The natural healing process will likely continue between therapy sessions. You may also have insights, dreams, or thoughts and feelings related to the work you did. It is very important to use your support system between sessions. Go to meetings, talk with a friend or sponsor, and find ways to get extra support. You may also want to talk to your therapist between sessions. After a session you may feel tired and need some down time. If possible, plan your EMDR session when you have time to relax after the session. You are asked to keep notes between sessions and to use self-soothing techniques to manage feelings between sessions.
EMDR is a relatively new (over twenty years old) type of psychotherapy that has been found to be faster and more effective than talk therapy alone for some people. It is a useful tool for resolving blocks and old negative beliefs that get in the way of recovery from drugs and alcohol. To learn more, go to the EMDR International Association website at www.emdria.org or contact the author, Teresa Allen MFT, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Teresa Allen is in private practice as a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in Oakland, California. She also works with persons recovering from addictions at New Bridge Foundation in Berkeley, California. Teresa has worked with people in recovery since 1998. She is a Full Member of EMDRIA and has been using EMDR since 2005 in her private therapy practice.
Learn more about her practice at http://www.teresaallenmft.com