What to Expect at EMDR

First of all, I am not a mental health professional or expert!  This is just my personal experience.

   My psychiatrist and I literally Googled EMDR Therapist in my area to find someone for me to see.  She didn’t know anyone, and at the time she only had a handful of patients that had ever gone to EMDR therapy, and they weren’t close enough to where I lived.  I was at the “I’ll try anything” stage of bipolar depression at the time.  The therapists popped up on the screen and my doctor looked at all of their backgrounds, education, and credentials.  We settled on one and I made an appointment for the next week.

   The basics:  My EMDR therapist charged $60 per hour.  My insurance did not cover it, so I paid check or cash each session when we were done.  Every session lasted an hour, except one went over and lasted two hours because she didn’t have another appointment booked after me.  When each session was over, we would schedule another one two weeks out.  I probably worked with her for four or five sessions.

Important note:  Schedule your session to be the last thing you do that day.  If possible, don’t try to go back to work, or go grocery shopping, or anything.  You will be exhausted.  Mentally you are completely and emotionally drained.  I would go home after each session and lay down and take a long nap.  EMDR is hard.   Know that it sucks and you’re going to cry while you’re there, and you will have to think about the worst things that have ever happened to you.  But when you are done with it, you will be free.

   I’m going to try to condense this so it’s not five pages long, but hopefully you can still understand the process and know what to expect.

   My therapist’s name was Virginia.  She was polite and soft-spoken, and she had typical therapist’s office.  She asked me to sit down and tell her what was going on.  It was awkward trying to sum up everything that had been going on for years, but I did the best I could.  She asked a few questions, and then she asked me what was the biggest problem.  She asked if I would like to work on that today and I said yes.  If I had said no, I’d rather work on some other thing, I think that would’ve been fine too.  Let’s say I had five traumatic events that I had problems dealing with.  It was my choice of where to begin or what we would work on during a session.

   She explained what the process was and how it worked.  Basically, EMDR takes the traumatic memory from the part of the brain that FEELS, and moves it to the part of the brain that thinks about the event “in the narrative.”  It’s kind of like being able to see and remember what happened from a distance in your mind, without the emotions of reliving it as if it is happening at that moment in the present.  That is what PTSD feels like.  You aren’t just remembering the trauma…you are reliving it, experiencing the feeling of it.  After EMDR, you can still remember it, talk about it, and even feel sadness.  You’re not emotionless.  But you don’t go into that panic, fear, flashbacks, or any of the horrible emotions of post-traumatic stress.  The way it works is the patient focuses on something slowly moving repeatedly left to right.  This process, along with the therapist’s guided talking and focused questions, is how the trauma shifts from the FEELING part of the brain over to the NARRATIVE part.  Virginia said the memory is “stuck”, meaning, it stayed in the FEELING part of the brain.  We are simply helping it move.

   I’m going to illustrate how we worked on one memory that I had been dealing with for over twenty years.  This was the first of many, I just want you to get an idea.  Virginia handed me two little round discs that were attached to cords.  Like earbuds.  She had a little remote attached to the end of the cord.  She put a disc in each hand and told me to hold it between my thumb and index finger.  They were vibrating lightly, one vibrated then the other.  I sat back and got comfortable.  She turned the discs off for a moment and she asked me to think of a calm, happy place that makes me feel at peace when I think of it.  I said a lake house.  That’s what she wanted me to think about if I got too upset, or uncomfortable, or wanted to stop.  Then I closed my eyes and thought about that place for a while.

   She asked me to talk about the incident.  I took a deep breath and began, “Someone knocked on my door.  I opened it and it was my cousin Donnie and our preacher Gary.  I was smiling and saying Hi!  My grandmother was staying with my brother and I because our parents were on a weekend motorcycle trip with their motorcycle club.  My grandmother came and stood next to me as I asked them what was going on?  They just stood there and looked at us and didn’t speak.  Their faces were weird, and they weren’t smiling.  I asked again what was going on, and then asked if something was wrong.  Donnie started to speak, he stuttered out ‘your parents.  It’s your parents.  There’s been an accident.’  I asked him, ‘Are they okay?’  He said nothing.  I asked him again, but louder.  He just shook his head and looked away.  Then I screamed hysterically, ‘Are they okay?’  Donnie said no.  They were gone.  I kind of remember my grandmother to my left sinking to the ground, and Donnie and Gary rushing towards her.  My next memory is screaming.  I screamed and ran.  I ran down our stairs leading to the back door on the bottom floor.  I was screaming and running through the back yard and down our huge hill, and up another hill to the road behind our house.  I was still screaming as I ran two blocks through backyards and driveways until I got to my boyfriend’s house.  I have no memory of anything after that.”

   It was so hard to get the words out, but I finally did.  I cried the whole time.   It was time for the back and forth part of the session.   I’ll go ahead and tell you that I decided I didn’t like the vibrating discs.  I found them to be distracting and I couldn’t concentrate on what she was saying.  “No problem”, she said.  So instead of the discs, she scooted her chair up in front of me.  Her knees were probably a foot and a half, maybe two feet away from my knees.  Close, but not too close where I felt uncomfortable.    Then, Virginia holds one of her index fingers up about a foot away from my face.  She tells me to watch her finger as it goes left then right, left then right, like a clock pendulum.  I watch her finger and tried to concentrate, but it was kind of hard.  My mind was all over the place.

   She began to speak in a slow, hypnotic voice, “That was such an awful thing to go through.  You and your brother were so young.  Donnie and Gary shouldn’t have stood there in your doorway not answering your questions, making you ask again and again.”  She went on a few minutes like that, just kind of going over what I said and reaffirming how horrible it was.  It was strange, I admit.  I kept my eyes on her finger the whole time she spoke.  When she was through talking, she lowered her finger.  She asked me “What do you feel”?  I didn’t even have to think.  It was a feeling I knew well, and it hurt.  “Grief!”  I was crying hard.  She then asked me where I felt it in my body.  Did I feel it in my stomach, or my chest?  My throat?  I thought a second, and I definitely felt it in my chest.  It burned like fire.  “Okay”, she said.  “Watch my finger again.”

   Virginia softly spoke her steady back and forth.  She talked about the pain in my chest, how I ran all the way to my boyfriend’s house.  She repeated that I shouldn’t have had to experience that pain, you weren’t supposed to lose your parents.  I stared at her finger again until she was done.  She asked me again how I felt.  I still felt grief and pain, and I cried.  But, then she asked me if the feeling in my chest had moved?  Huh?  Did it move?  I had to think and really pay attention to my body.  To my astonishment, it had moved!  It was a tiny bit lower, I thought.

   We did this exercise four or five times.  Each time the pain moved a little lower in my body, and became less intense.  Something else happened that I didn’t expect…a few times we would stop and talk a minute between the finger waving part.  She would ask me if I remembered anything or felt anything different.  If so, I would tell her.  I had a few memories come to light, or something would occur to me that I never had thought of before.  We would talk about these things, and if she thought it was beneficial or relevant, she would insert them into the things she said while she waved her finger.  For example, it occurred to me how hard it must’ve been for Donnie to come to our house and tell my grandmother, his first cousin that he’d been close to his whole life, that her son and his wife had died.  He was probably scared for one thing, because she was old and her health was not good at all.  I could never see or consider anything like that before.  The plain simple facts as I always knew them was what I told Virginia at the beginning…what they did and said at my front door, and me screaming and running.  I had nightmares, flashbacks, panic attacks, and my only escape was knocking myself out with sleeping pills.

   The goal is for that bad feeling that you have in your body, to move downwards and finally out to where you can’t feel it anymore.  Literally, every time we would stop, the feeling would not only be less intense, but it would have moved lower and lower, until finally, it was gone.  It may take one session, it may take eight.  It’s the weirdest thing I’ve ever done.  When I left that day, I thought how stupid it was and I knew it didn’t work.  But the next couple of weeks, I noticed that I could think about that event and not start crying, or hyperventilating.  I could talk about that moment without feeling intense emotional pain.  I frequently had impulses to scream my head off, and I didn’t feel that anymore.  I didn’t have flashbacks.  I still felt a sense of sadness because I missed my mom and dad, and they died a tragic death.  But, it was over twenty years ago.  Suddenly I could think about it like it was twenty years ago, instead of like it happened yesterday.

   After we tackled several things related to the first session, I told Virginia that I was going to take a break from our meetings.  I was tired and I had worked hard!  It’s very difficult reliving the most traumatic and painful events of your entire life.  She agreed and said to give her a call when I was ready to tackle some more issues.  I called her about four months later and we started on the next item on the list.  I can honestly say that EMDR has changed my life for the better.  My chest doesn’t feel like it’s on fire anymore, and I don’t always feel like screaming.
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4 thoughts on “What to Expect at EMDR

  1. Thank you for sharing. I am considering EMDR and a bit frightened that it will be overwhelming and intense. I appreciate your experience.
    M

    1. I know it’s scary! I was scared too, but also desperate! When you find a therapist, if u don’t like them, or don’t feel like you’re accomplishing anything, change therapists! They’re not all amazing, sometimes you’ll get a dud. Don’t give up…move on and find someone else! It’s like a hairdresser…just bc they have a license doesn’t mean that they’re good at it lol Good luck!!!

  2. It is awesome you found help in opening up and allowing grieving to occur! I’m sorry about your sudden loss of both parents, and so glad to know you are moving on with healing for your own life…

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