Integrated Trauma Healing with EMDR Therapy
An ever increasing number of sexual violence and trauma survivors are exploring the use of EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) Therapy to assist in their healing and resolution of trauma and its collateral impacts on the body, mind and spirit. According to one of our practitioners with The Breathe Network, Dr. Jamie Marich, “EMDR is one of the most popular and most researched therapies in the treatment of PTSD and other trauma-related concerns” while at the same time “it remains shrouded in mystery and misinformation.” Having interacted with this technique at a pivotal point in my own recovery, I resonated with the “mystery” component of what is otherwise a scientifically established method of healing. Reflecting on the journey into my brain through EMDR, I recall it felt technical, methodical and rhythmic; it also felt visceral – in my musculature, my emotions, my body temperature and my mind’s eye. Encapsulating the experience was an unexpected glimpse into the archives of my brain which drew to the surface a fuller picture of my past, both tangible and indescribable, and revealed a holistic, meaningful and deeply spiritual perspective of my rape. I longed to write it down, I never actually did – and yet my whole body recorded it with ease.
What my brain captured without conscious effort, and what it had been holding like a reservoir for years, was not in fact the bottomless sorrow and pain I anticipated – rather, and much to my surprise, it was quite the opposite. I had to voyage through and beyond the sorrow and pain, through tears and shaking, to eventually emerge in something totally new. EMDR therapy gave me a window into possibility, purpose and a total re-frame of the mind-body-spirit devastation in a way that caused me to place faith in the dark and unavoidable course of my own destiny. I didn’t gain answers, but I discovered truths that released me from my quest for resolution at last. Ultimately, the images, the associated narrative and the experience of going into sexual trauma at those depths transformed the way my body, my mind and my spirit “contained” my story. Recognizing and trusting in the absolute beauty that no level of science may ever be able to “prove”, EMDR gently drew me from the total isolation of rape into the total embrace of having survived.
Most survivors, if not all, have our moments of transcendence – some that send us soaring as high as the sky, others that plunge us into what feels like the core of the Earth; some that last for days and others that come pulsing through us only to leave as quickly as a dissolving dream upon waking. Yet, however painful or precious, however brief or long we are able to steep in those revelations – they deliver knowledge and insight that only we, in our unique experience of our current embodiment can fully understand. Whether we tap these resources through EMDR or on our yoga mats, through relationships with our partners or through contemplative practices, through painting a canvas or riding a horse – they are ours. They land inside us, they encourage new sensitivity to ourselves, they challenge our patterns, and while we may grapple with their meaning – we need not grasp to retain their teachings. Like my own fascinating experience with EMDR, we will receive the focused presence required for the next phase of healing when our systems are ready, and importantly, we can pace this breathtakingly arduous process with the steady metronome of our own heart. One beat, one tap, one powerful affirmation of our innate resilience at a time. Like the dream that dissolves as the gaze of our brain shifts to the external, it leaves an impression that we need not analyze or cling to in our waking. These revelations, be they micro or macro, are the unexpected gifts that bathe our unconscious and contribute to the mental, physical and spiritual integration within our our shape. The process of repairing the wounds of trauma can evolve towards something that is natural, inevitable, organic and free of constant efforting to heal when our experience is held and seen in its totality.
Still, how does this practice work and for whom is it effective? What is it about traumatic memory that so challenges the rejuvenation of the brain or those unshakeable however unwanted beliefs that recycle inside? Please join me as we delve further into the holistic technique of EMDR Therapy in my interview with Master Clinician, Dr. Jamie Marich. Dr. Marich is a dancer, musician, performer, writer, recovery ambassador, and clinical counselor, who unites these elements of her experience to achieve an ultimate mission: bringing the art and joy of healing to others. She has authored several books on trauma recovery and travels internationally speaking on topics related to EMDR, trauma, addiction, and mindfulness while still maintaining a private practice in her home base of Warren, Ohio. She embodies the balance, patience, vulnerability, creativity and connection that resilience begets, and we are honored she is part of The Breathe Network.
The Breathe Network: Can you give us a brief explanation of what EMDR is, or what is actually doing within the brain for folks that aren’t steeped in psychology or neuroscience? Why is the bilateral stimulation so important after trauma and what are the various ways that kind of stimulation is facilitated? Is it more than bilateral stimulation?
Dr. Jamie Marich: EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. The discovery of EMDR is credited to a psychologist, Dr. Francine Shapiro, a cancer survivor who was very interested in mind-body medicine. When I explain EMDR Therapy to clients I generally begin by relaying the story about how her serendipitous discovery during a walk she took in a park one day led to what now exists as EMDR. You can listen to an interview of Dr. Shapiro talking about her discovery on YouTube. In my view, EMDR Therapy taps into the natural capacity that bilateral stimulation, or alternating back-and-forth motion, offers in bringing a greater sense of balance to the brain. If you are a drummer, a dancer, or engage in any type of bilateral activities like yoga, running, or swimming, it is likely that you’ve already realized this potential in some form. Although the jury is still out scientifically on what exactly is going on in the brain with EMDR, many of us believe, based on existing knowledge of the human brain, that the back-and-forth stimulation of eye movements, alternate tapping, or listening to audio tones is promoting enhanced connectivity between the left and right hemispheres and between the lower brains (e.g., the limbic brain and the brain stem, where emotion and survival instincts rule the day) and the highest brain (e.g., the cerebral cortex, associated with thinking, logic, higher reasoning skills, and speech).
TBN: I have heard different thoughts from EMDR practitioners related to when EMDR is an appropriate intervention for a trauma survivor. Some suggest that waiting a period of time – weeks or months prior to introducing the technique is the way to go, whereas others have told me they feel that if a trauma survivor – such as a person who was recently sexually assaulted – were able to begin EMDR therapy immediately, the likelihood of post traumatic stress symptoms could be prevented or greatly reduced. What are your thoughts?
JM: In general, I believe that a person ought to receive care as close to the traumatic injury as possible. What many don’t realize about EMDR Therapy is that many of us utilize it as our primary approach to psychotherapy. The reprocessing, or going deeper with the trauma phases, actually do not occur until Phase 3 in a standard 8-Phase protocol. Phases 1 and 2 are devoted to getting to know the client and their needs, and preparing the client for reprocessing using any combination of distress tolerance activities. Some clients I’ve worked with need longer in the preparation phase before the trauma is actually targeted and in my view, that is still “doing EMDR.” The length of preparation is a case-by-case decision based on client context that a well-trained EMDR practitioner will be able to make after meeting the client.
TBN: How much does EMDR rely on the telling of details within the story in order to facilitate healing? Is there a way you pace it to ensure recalling the story isn’t overwhelming?
JM: What I love about EMDR Therapy is that the client can truly verbalize as much or as little of the details as they feel they need to within the flow of EMDR. This happens because EMDR helps to reprocess other facets of a person’s experience other than just the verbal/cognitive – we are working with the somatic experiences, energetic shifts, spiritual imprints, and other sensory components. The client can “just notice” parts of their experience and it still gets processed with the assistance of the bilateral stimulation, leading to shifts in how the memory is stored in the brain. A well-trained EMDR therapist uses preparation skills within a trauma-informed context of care to make sure that a client is able to self-soothe if the reprocessing becomes overwhelming, or if a session needs to close before processing is complete. An ethical EMDR therapist always makes sure that the client knows that they are in control of the session the whole time and can use a “stop sign” signal if they need to discontinue reprocessing and come back to one of their safe skills. Until I know how comfortable the client will be with reprocessing with EMDR, I am always looking for non-verbal cues and signals and checking in to make sure that they are okay to keep going with the process once we start to explore into intense areas.
TBN: Are there any techniques within the EMDR philosophy that a survivor might be able to gently work with on their own – of course recognizing they would not be doing EMDR on themselves – but rather, are there physical or mental practices we can engage in that support or strengthen the treatments and restoration of the body and brain after trauma?
JM: Bilateral activities are incredibly healing and are not inherently dangerous in and of themselves. As I mentioned, drumming, swimming, dancing, knitting are all time-honored coping skills that many survivors find powerful without even realizing that formal EMDR exists. Laurel Parnell’s visionary book Tapping In (2008) launched into the area of EMDR tapping as self-help, although this is largely done as part of resourcing, skills, building, or preparation. Even the founder Dr. Shapiro published a book in 2013 suggesting ways that EMDR techniques can be used as self-help. Of course there are a plethora of websites and apps now that promote the capacity for “do it yourself” EMDR. I’ve naturally approached these with a bit of skepticism because, even though the technique is powerful, for the sake of safety, the power of having a trained person to guide is such a key factor. I compare it to yoga DVDs versus studying with a teacher you click with – sure, you may get something out of the DVD, but you may also find yourself pushing too far and too fast. There is nothing like a live teacher to help meet you where you are at.
TBN: What drew you to EMDR as a clinician? Can you share a moment that stood out to you about the potential for this method to heal trauma?
JM: My personal experience with EMDR Therapy! When I was in graduate school working in my first round of professional internship I found myself getting triggered left and right by the clients. I had done so much talk therapy and 12-step work at that point, I wasn’t sure if further counseling would help or if these triggers were just more evidence of my brokenness. I had a colleague who intervened with me at work—knowing I needed help—and he suggested I seek out this one therapist in my town who was know for doing “alternative” things. EMDR was her primary suggestion and I was so willing to try anything outside of the talk therapy norm. I am one of those classic “the EMDR changed my world and my life” cases, that I simply knew I had to be able to offer this to my clients.
TBN: Is EMDR a useful treatment for those who haven’t survived overt “big” traumas, yet who are also navigating the inevitable losses and hardships of life and struggling to overcome them?
JM: Yes. Simply put, yes. Trauma is just an unhealed wound that does not have to be at the level of PTSD for it to be an issue. Dr. Shapiro’s writing and philosophy was a huge factor in me coming to own this reality for myself, and it’s a value I am proud to share with clients. Whether it’s PTSD-level stuff or an adverse life experience that has never been healed, it can continue to affect us until it is healed.
TBN: Thank you so much Jamie for sharing your insights with us about EMDR and for your overall holistic, compassionate and affirming approach to trauma resolution!
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