A few weeks ago my therapist presented me with information about Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. EMDR , through the use of a light bar, finger tapping or auditory stimulation, seeks to replicate the eye movements associated with Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep. During this phase of rest, the eyes move at random and dreams occur as the brain sorts through information in an effort to create meaning. This is the brain’s God-given way of healing and restoring itself. When trauma occurs this process is interrupted. Sleep is no longer comforting, as the information now within the brain is overwhelming and often nightmare-producing.
EMDR is primarily used in therapy when the patient suffers from disorders that have roots in distressing life experiences, such as post-traumatic stress disorder. While the memories are never erased, the goal is to reduce the “re-experiencing” of the distressing experience. The therapist uses the process to stimulate the brain’s natural restorative cycle, which has often been suppressed, in order to help the patient deal with the experience and heal from it.
This all made sense to me. I nodded my head, signed the forms, asked a few questions. What I didn’t realize until later was that my counselor was telling me that she saw evidence of real trauma in my life. As I sat down to complete the timeline that all EMDR clients must craft, I was overwhelmed by all of the painful events listed there in black and white. So overwhelmed, in fact, that I had to lay the project aside. I never went back to it; I just gave her the little I had finished.
Today my counselor went over the treatment plan with me. She wanted to make sure that I understood all the components of EMDR as well as a non-clinician can. My blood froze for a moment when she read the official diagnosis:
“Post-traumatic stress disorder (delayed and chronic) exhibited in symptoms of depression and anxiety…”
She must have seen the startled look on my face, because she very quickly reiterated to me that there were some truly terrible things on that timeline of mine. Still I struggled to accept it. Post-traumatic stress disorder? Isn’t that something that military people get?
The National Institute of Mental Health lists the following as symptoms of PTSD:
1. Re-experiencing symptoms:
- Flashbacks—reliving the trauma over and over, including physical symptoms like a racing heart or sweating
- Bad dreams
- Frightening thoughts.
Re-experiencing symptoms may cause problems in a person’s everyday routine. They can start from the person’s own thoughts and feelings. Words, objects, or situations that are reminders of the event can also trigger re-experiencing.
2. Avoidance symptoms:
- Staying away from places, events, or objects that are reminders of the experience
- Feeling emotionally numb
- Feeling strong guilt, depression, or worry
- Losing interest in activities that were enjoyable in the past
- Having trouble remembering the dangerous event.
Things that remind a person of the traumatic event can trigger avoidance symptoms. These symptoms may cause a person to change his or her personal routine. For example, after a bad car accident, a person who usually drives may avoid driving or riding in a car.
3. Hyperarousal symptoms:
- Being easily startled
- Feeling tense or “on edge”
- Having difficulty sleeping, and/or having angry outbursts.
Hyperarousal symptoms are usually constant, instead of being triggered by things that remind one of the traumatic event. They can make the person feel stressed and angry. These symptoms may make it hard to do daily tasks, such as sleeping, eating, or concentrating. – PTSD
Somehow this is more difficult to own than depression and anxiety, but, looking over the list of symptoms, there’s no denying it. Just yesterday I saw a car that belongs to someone who really hurt me in the past. In mere seconds I felt as though I had been punched in the stomach (my breath was gone), tears pooled in my eyes and my heart began to pound – exactly what I felt during our last intense confrontation. I wasn’t just remembering how bad it felt – I was back in that moment.
The set of symptoms that I experience most frequently are in the second group. I will go out of my way to avoid anything that looks similar to what has gone before; it’s only been the last few months that I can drive past the church my husband and I used to attend without wanting to scream, and even then my palms are sweaty and I’d rather be anywhere else. When I can’t do a simple task like wrap a Christmas present, I am back in kindergarten, ashamed to sit at my desk and grapple with cutting out a picture of Santa Claus while everyone else goes to storytime. So, I put gifts in bags. There are a million and one ways to engage in avoidance.
EMDR will bring me face-to-face with my trauma. I won’t be able to avoid it anymore. I’ll have to do the work of understanding and healing. I’m scared to death. Yes, I want to come out of this dark valley, but I sure don’t want to turn around and do battle with the monster that’s been following me. He’s big and nasty.
He is quite possibly of my own making. My own fears. My own inability to process and forgive.
John the Beloved Disciple wrote about big, nasty monsters in his first letter to unnamed church. He told that little flock how to discern between spirits that came from God and spirits that did not. In that context he added this bit of encouragement:
You are of God, little children, and have overcome them, because He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world. – 1 John 4:4 (NKJV)
My God is bigger than the monster. He’s better than this gift that keeps on giving. I have to hold to that.
For all the posts in the What Depression Means to Me series, go here.