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Ponderings of a therapist’s mind – Demystifying EMDR: part 2

Having explained the 8 phases of EMDR therapy in my previous post, I want to share observations I’ve had from conducting EMDR therapy since 2000.

On one hand, EMDR is not unlike many other therapies in the sense that the client is the one who does their healing work. Often regardless of the approach, the therapist is guided by what the client is concerned about, and what they want to accomplish in therapy; and, it is the client who must dig within themselves to find what they need to heal and move forward.

Perhaps one aspect that is different, however, is that not all therapies necessarily promote a directly holistic way of processing the mental, emotional, physical, and even spiritual aspects as prominently as might happen with EMDR. In EMDR therapy, there is a fundamentally conscious effort to do so, by paying attention to:

  • the thoughts and beliefs currently held, which are developed over ones life time
  • the emotional reactions and residue from unresolved experiences,
  • the physical or somatic symptoms associated with unresolved issues
  • releasing the residual thoughts, feelings and visceral body memories, followed by assisting clients to install positive thoughts, feelings and sensations which are life giving, rather than life stealing.

Processing with EMDR involves directly accessing all of these aspects; it isn’t so much that other therapies don’t access these parts of our experiences. Rather, it is done perhaps more organically – if and when it arises; or, there is a focus on one or two aspects predominantly – as in somatic experiencing, CT, or CBT,  for example.

Secondly, EMDR can very easily be adapted to incorporate other treatment approaches, while the reverse may be more uncommon. For example, a CBT therapist would not necessarily incorporate EMDR into the treatment, but certainly, CBT principles can be incorporated into EMDR. Somatic experiencing and sensorimotor psychotherapy are also very easily incorporated into EMDR therapy. In fact, in my experience, Gestalt therapy, CBT, CT, sensorimotor and somatic experiencing techniques, as well as psychotherapeutic method, and Jungian archetypal concepts blend wonderfully with EMDR. This is significant, in that therapists have much wisdom to draw in in their creative integration of EMDR therapy into their practice.

Third, regardless of the ideas people might have about EMDR, a well trained clinician is totally capable of being a good guide, or as I like to say, a good facilitator. Clients coming to EMDR therapy are very involved in treatment planning, and in what they want focus on in sessions, and the skilled therapist can ensure that they stay on track, and also stay within their comfort zone while doing the uncomfortable work of facing those things they long feared to address. We call that staying within ‘the window of tolerance.’

As well, a good clinician will help clients who aren’t good at managing emotions and discomfort in healthy ways learn how to do just that. Not only can they learn to tolerate discomfort, but they can actually learn how to self regulate, which can increase confidence, and reduce the fear of facing the issues which need to be addressed. Clients CAN gain the ability to face that which they perhaps tried to deny, or disconnect from; those things which keep resurfacing and haunting them can once and for all be put to rest. This is actually very empowering for most people, and, it is perhaps quite revelatory to discover.

An important feature of EMDR, not unlike other therapies, is that you literally get out of it what you put into it; practicing what you learn in the counsellors office – the tools – can actually assist you to move ahead more quickly as you gain confidence in your ability to intervene in your discomfort, and furthermore, reduce intensity of reactions, duration of reactions, and frequency of reactions. Often people feel that their emotions overtake/overwhelm them, and that they just cannot intervene, but the tools gained in EMDR lead to all these positive effects, and the more effort put forth to apply the tools, the more likely and more quickly you will see the results. This is always a factor that people find particularly surprising, and yet it is one of the greatest features of doing EMDR, and using the tools you are given.

Aside from the above comments on self regulation, and fear of facing demons or ghosts, most people are actually unaware of their own capacity to withstand the discomfort they will face, along with those demons and ghosts. Often, people have been carrying an almost insufferable amount of pain, lugging it around, while it constantly haunts them, or they try to avoid it, but it keeps eating away at them, or swirling about in their bellies, like a miniature tornado, or, after being triggered, it takes off like a runaway train barrelling down the track before they have a chance to pull the emergency chord that will cause the train to grind to halt. No wonder people are scared of it! Trying to stuff it, causes explosions that are overwhelming, and often cause damage to relationships.

As it happens, the immediate discomfort of facing an issue is generally short lived, as an emotion – when allowed to take its course – may last only a few minutes before it crests, and begins to subside, but without a doubt, the relief of letting that happen is far more livable than constantly trying to swallow it down or ignore it which is like a self torture as it only gets worse, the harder one tries to avoid, ignore, deny it. So, in facing the feeling, one can come to terms with it, and release it, where as the reverse simply has the opposite effect, leading to ongoing intolerable discomfort that continues to grow and fester inside us, just bubbling away until that last straw – usually some small thing that just rips us over.

Self regulation has a positive impact on our life and relationships. You might wonder why that is so; well, the interesting thing about trying to keep stuff out of awareness, trying to disconnect from discomfort, or pain is that in order to do it, we either become numb, or cause whatever mayhem will distract us, and then it comes out sideways as already mentioned – blowups, addictions, etc. And, we cannot selectively choose which emotions to cut out and which ones to feel. All of these effects have a negative impact on how we function – anger bleeds out and alienates loved ones, we’re sad or depressed and we isolate, or we otherwise cause the type of toxic drama that causes real harm to those around us, and to ourselves. These are just a few of the effects, but all of these types of strategies actually create a barrier between us and those who love us, and those who want to help.

Alternatively, when we walk through the pain, sadness, grief, anger, hurt, disappointment, etc., we make room for others to enter into our world by removing those barriers, and we can move towards receiving the love and care we need to help us heal. The greatest challenge for therapists is to get through the defenses, avoidant strategies, etc., so the client can truly recover. Fortunately, EMDR provides great strategies to do so.

I look forward to hearing from you.
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Dr Barbara Harris, PhD, MSW, RSW

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Dr. Barbara now offers Skype sessions for EMDR Intensives, Consultations and Trauma Counselling.

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