EMDR – My Experience

Well, it’s been quite some time since I’ve posted anything here. I’m hoping to line up a few different posts, because there is a lot I want to write about, I just haven’t felt like I’ve had the bandwidth to do much writing recently, even though I’ve been missing it. So, I might as well try to get some writing done, and just be OK with what comes out.

I ran a poll earlier this week on my twitter on what topic I should write about next, and the winning topic was “what EMDR is like for me.”

First of all, what does EMDR mean? EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, and it’s a form of therapy that uses some form of stimulation on both sides of the body (aka: bilateral stimulation, usually in the form of lights, eye tracking, clicking sounds, or tapping). It’s a highly recommended form of therapy for PTSD, but it’s also very useful for a variety of trauma types and intensities.

EMDR “tappers.” These are like the ones I use in session.
Photo from the Empowering Choices Counseling website

I hadn’t really heard about EMDR until my first therapist, who mentioned it in passing and said it might be something worth trying as we got into dealing with the trust issues and other triggers I was experiencing from my first marriage. I didn’t experience it until I had been working with my current therapist for a few months. Even then, what with the grief from Gramps passing, and then everything I went through last year, there have been a lot of weeks where we focused more on traditional talk therapy.

We are back into EMDR, though, and every time we start working on a target, it reminds me how unusual the overall experience is. It might be a little hard to describe, but I’ll give it a shot.

When I first get to session, we don’t just jump into working through things with EMDR. She usually checks in with me, seeing how the week has been, if there are any new challenges or developments and (if we’re mid-way through a target) how I reacted to the last session. After that, she confirms that I have the mental, physical and emotional energy and bandwidth to do some EMDR work, and then we get started.

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash.com

If we’re starting a new target, then we start out by figuring out what challenge is most impactful. For instance, at one point I was regularly having panic attacks at night after being with my husband, so we opted to explore what, precisely, was behind that. I knew it was somehow tied to my first marriage, but I didn’t know how to get past it. Setting up the target for me is sometimes a hard process. I have a strong habit of just pushing through and not even acknowledging the problem (or the feelings coming from it).

With the ex-husband example, to build the target, some of the questions we explored were along the lines of:

  • What keeps coming up?
  • What feels like the worst/most intense memory from this time?
  • What emotions do I feel?
  • How do I experience this in my body?
  • What images come up?
  • On a scale of 0-10, with 0 being not disturbing at all, and 10 being the most disturbing imaginable, how disturbing is this memory?

Many of these questions are then repeated on subsequent sessions as we work through the target, and the ranking helps us determine my progress. For the example of my first marriage, we started with it at, I think a 7 or 8, and we left it at around a 1 or 2. We couldn’t get it quite to a 0 or 1, because some of what was left was also entangled with other areas of my past needing work.

Once we have the target (or, on later sessions, after we review the target and re-rank it), she asks me to mentally go back to that time, the most disturbing part of the memory, and then, as we start the bilateral stimulation, she asks me to just see what comes up. This is the part that, the first few times, feels the weirdest and most nebulous. This is when a lot of patients start asking if they’re doing it right, or thinking they’re doing something wrong.

Image from publicdomainvectors.org

For me, when we start each round (which is usually about a minute long), I often close my eyes, so I don’t get distracted by the things in the room. Since my therapist uses the hand tappers for bilateral stimulation, it doesn’t cause a problem if I close my eyes. Then the alternating buzzing of the hand tappers begins. I start by thinking about the target, and then let my mind follow whatever path of connected memories and feelings may lead. It’s this path-following that can feel the most strange, at least to me. At first, I kept trying to force my mind back to the target memory, thinking that, as other memories or feelings came to mind, I was getting distracted, letting my mind wander. And then I realized, that was the point.

Nothing in our past exists in a vacuum. One event, one negative or painful time does not exist in isolation. For me, the feeling of being convenient, optional, alone frequently came up in working through things with my husband, and my mind made connections from across the years, not only of my first marriage, but of other times in my life that had, well, a similar flavor, a similar theme.

Each session that we worked on the target, it got a little easier. Between them, though, that’s when things can get interesting. A year ago, the “betweens” sometimes opened the door to invisible cows. Like a lot of the healing that happens in a therapy journey, sometimes you need to re-open a wound to allow it to heal properly, in a more healthy way.


As we’ve gotten deeper into the journey, we’ve added more than just re-experiencing the past and finding connections. We often challenge some of the negative self-talk that has happened in the past. And, at times, she has encouraged me to “sit with” my past self, the version of me that was in the midst of these trying times and painful memories, and help comfort her.

Again, like a lot of things that can happen in therapy, there’s an interesting contrast that comes up in therapy. For every tangible, “logical” assignment and process that happens (like thought records), there’s also the more intangible, intuitive, and what could be called “touchy-feely” work that has to happen. And, while much of the world would love for everything in life and mental health to be purely logical, analytical and reasonable, the reality is that our “selves,” our memories, our pasts are not always purely rooted in or impacting us in solely logical, reasonable ways. It’s taken a while, but I’m finally realizing that, sometimes, I have to meet myself when and how I was at each painful time that has made a mark that needs healing.

What has been a realization you’ve had to make, in order to progress in your journey?

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