Recovering From Trauma With EMDR Therapy
“Violence is a change that happens too quickly,” a professor of mine once said in a literature class. At the time, I found the thought interesting, like many ideas you are exposed to in a classroom. It wasn’t until I experienced a violent act, however, that I had to return to this concept and wrestle with it. To me, violence did not feel like a change because I have always associated that word “change” with positive movement. To me, violence was a sudden distortion of my life. A distortion that has had a long-lasting effect.
If violence can be thought of as the moment of impact, then trauma is something deeper. Trauma is defined as “a body wound or shock produced from sudden physical injury, as from violence or accident… an experience that produces psychological injury or pain.” And yes, it did feel sudden — a change that happened too quickly. For me, the distortion took place in my mind, but I also carry the impact in my body in ways I could not at first see.
One sees things differently after a traumatic experience. A world is forever changed, and changed “too quickly” indeed. The experience of such a trauma is like being struck by lightning, it’s something one hears about but would never expect to happen to them. It makes one fearful to ever go outside in a storm again. Lightning has struck me on multiple accounts. Trauma has made me feel more intensely. I am often triggered by the smallest, seemingly random things.
The trauma that has affected me the most (and the one that I’ve had the most difficulty naming) happened when I was nineteen years old. I was raped by two young men while away at college. I recall riding in the ambulance to the hospital, feeling numb, already detached from the violent thing that had just occurred. Everything was moving around me: a siren wailing, lights flashing, but I couldn’t focus on anything. I tried to focus on the howling sound of the sirens and the sparkly nail polish on my fingernails as officers strapped me into a stretcher and we rode to the hospital but the task was impossible. My eyes felt blurry and everything looked hazy, I tried to focus on the sparkles. “This is where I am now.”
My mouth felt dry and I had difficulty swallowing. I remember closing my eyes and then opening them. I did this over and over very quickly. Open. Shut. Open. Shut. I moved my hands up and down my arms, legs, and stomach. My body felt foreign to me — like suddenly waking up in a stranger’s skin. I was trembling. Someone covered me with a blanket, but I was not cold.
I knew that from now on things would be different.
It has been difficult for me to identify as a victim or a survivor because the way I view my experience of sexual assault has constantly shifted and evolved in ways that are both helpful and confusing. I do recognize that I was raped, though I’ve had trouble saying that word. In fact, I don’t ever say it, especially in a public forum. Although I can name “rape” or “assault” (with difficulty), I struggle even more so to name myself in that experience. Trauma is complex. It is difficult to express and identify.
These types of encounters leave a scar, scars that are not physical. Everyone has experiences they cannot forget — experiences that live on in our minds (eternally), and experiences that we also carry in our bodies. These moments, these experiences transform us. Though no one can see a disfigurement in my body, the pain is there, and I must constantly address it as it evolves.
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After being hospitalized I fled from my college campus feeling confused and raw. I returned to my childhood home but it no longer felt the same. Like me, it felt sadder. I moved through the motions of the day but felt somewhat detached yet also heightened. Eventually, after a few weeks of being home, I recognized that I needed help to understand what had happened and how I could begin to move forward. I don’t know if I experienced it quite so simply at the time, but there was a certain urgency in the new set of emotions that my trauma caused that sprung up at times I couldn’t control or understand. I needed to do something. A dear family friend who is a practicing therapist suggested a practice called EMDR.
EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. It was originally developed by Francine Shapiro, an American psychologist and educator, to treat post-traumatic stress disorder. Shapiro explains, within her practice that, “when a traumatic or distressing experience occurs, it may overwhelm normal coping mechanisms. The memory and associated stimuli are inadequately processed and stored in an isolated memory network.”
The hope with EMDR therapy is to reduce the long-term effects of trauma and distress, and to instead find better ways to cope with the memories, images, and triggers. The practice has eight phases, which include the patient recalling traumatic images while receiving a form of bilateral sensory input, such as eye movements, alternating tones in each ear, or alternating buzzes from hand-held sensors.
I was referred to therapist Sonja Lindgren for EMDR.
At the start, I was situated on a comfortable couch in Sonja’s warm office. Sonja asked a series of questions before introducing me to the hand held sensors, which buzz at the same rate throughout the session. I held the sensors in my hands while returning to the memory of my trauma. The buzzing was not only a physical sensation or vibration but also a reminder that I am in my body in this space. Once the sensors were present my focus shifted. We still addressed the trauma but there was more time turning inward, thinking of what had happened, and becoming aware of my body and the sensors in my hands.
Often I would close my eyes and focus on what had happened. At the same time, however, I was aware of the buzzing sensation I was experiencing in my hands. Then I would speak with Sonja about what I was thinking and how it felt in my body. I noticed that I held a lot of the trauma and anxiety in my shoulders. I worked through feelings of guilt, anger, and confusion within trauma. I did this for several months. As I relaxed my body and worked through my emotions, I was always left with sadness. Even if I worked through those other complicated emotions sadness was still there. There was nothing else to do at this point in my processing but understand that that sadness existed. That it was sad that this happened but it didn’t define my character.
Sonja explained that EMDR therapy is called so because it is a fully realized form of psychotherapy. It is constantly evolving and is a dynamic process. This notion excited me, because with trauma I needed to work in a safe space that I felt I could shape (in a way) or speak and move openly within.
EMDR uses dual awareness: While seated in a safe space (Sonja’s office), I was able to recall moments from the past that felt (and were) unsafe. “One cannot heal from trauma in a continuing state of a lack of safety,” Sonja explains. “The patient can only heal once they have a safe environment.” I did not know about safe spaces when I first began EMDR therapy at the age of 19. I just knew I didn’t feel safe anymore. My safety and sense of self had been distorted.
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When I did EMDR with Sonja so much was new to me. I began to have a way to talk about the trauma I experienced. It helped me understand who I am, why I feel what I do and gave me ideas about how to move forward.
In high school, I struggled to talk about anything related to my emotions. I could write or think and, for the time, that was enough for me. After I experienced trauma, those confines were not enough (nor were they ever really enough). Now I was acutely aware of my lack of skill set to communicate openly. As I went through EMDR therapy with Sonja I had a safe space to be honest. Often I’d leave Sonja’s office and talk to myself aloud on the car ride home or I’d call my mom and tell her about these new realizations. I had to talk about it — I had all these new feelings both about my trauma and my new understanding of self. I would call my mom and talk to her about the clarity I’d now had of my experiences. I’d call her and talk about what I was going to do with my new strength.
One of the appeals about EMDR therapy is that it connects with my creative spirit.
“One thing that appealed to me about EMDR is that it was akin to the creative process,” Sonja says. “Often a patient describes what happened to them in metaphorical language, in ways they would not [do] in talk therapy…. EMDR taps into the capacity for the symbolic expression of experience. As a reader and writer that appeals to me. The metaphors shift the way the patient sees the trauma. And that is ultimately the goal of EMDR, to shift the patient’s perspective of the past and to change their reactions in the present.”
I’ve always made work around trauma, in ways that reveal what I feel comfortable with at the time. I don’t disclose things that make me feel unsafe, and only share the work I make in safe spaces. It has been an important part of my process to express the experience metaphorically or within the scope of art and dreams. It helps me to move through the trauma in a new way and I believed this started for me in EMDR. Now I share writings, zines, songs, or a dance that I’ve made with friends. It always helps me to share and talk about it in a way that is not fixed and in a way that does not feel harsh.
EMDR helped me to get in touch with my body, finding where the trauma lived and finding ways to cope with that physical sensation as I talked through the experience.
Sonja says that she is really, “looking for a portal into the trauma. There are many possible doors: the doors can be images, current triggers, repeated physical sensations (like throat tightness, like heart ache). If we don’t start with the body, the body will likely become engaged later during the EMDR processing. Often those things are clues. Is there a trauma in which this body part was involved?”
I love Sonja’s example of throat tightness and heartache. I have felt these things in my body many times. I remember the first time I experienced them together was when I was watching a Shirley Temple movie when I was about 5 years old with my parents. In the film, Shirley’s parents died (don’t worry I am not giving anything away, it happens in most Shirley Temple movies!). At that moment, I suddenly felt a tightness in my throat and a pang in my heart. I couldn’t connect the physical reaction to the emotional reaction. I tried to express it to my parents but because my throat was tight it was difficult to express I felt both sad for Shirley and confused with what was happening to my body.
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As I focused on my trauma and the sensors in EMDR therapy, I noticed my shoulders would rise up and become tense. I still have this physical experience and can quickly understand why it is occurring in most cases.
EMDR helps to re-establish or create a new sense of self. Since that first experience with trauma I have endured other traumas and moments of unwellness. My sense of self has wavered and shifted. Sonja describes that, with trauma, “the relationship with one’s self is disrupted.” When I return to EMDR, it helps me to find ways to understand this new part of my identity. I’m not always perfect at it because it is difficult work. Sonja explains that EMDR therapists try to help patients understand how the trauma affects the relationship with the self, and how patients can incorporate feelings of responsibility or helplessness. For me, this brings to mind the concepts of “victim” or “survivor shaming and blaming.” It is sometimes difficult within my trauma to understand my role.
EMDR embodies several aspects of self so you can work within trauma. Learning all these new things or old traumas can be overwhelming and time consuming at times, but I know that that is part of the process. EMDR therapy allows me to work gently within my emotions and experiences, it helps me move through them and understand them. Through my EMDR work with Sonja, I have come to understand that this bad thing happened to me, but it wasn’t because I was bad or weak or I didn’t fight back (though I’ve felt those things at times). My experience with EMDR helped me to recognize what the trauma was to me, how I carry it in my body, and how to cope with that weight. It made me more self-aware, self-assured, and compassionate toward myself.
The belief of self within trauma is key. Learning to trust myself and my body was part of what EMDR did for me. It’s the work I’m continuously trying to achieve in my life.
About EMDR therapist Sonja Lindgren
Sonja Lindgren developed an interest in the mental health sphere after studying comparative literature in college. “The field of mental health never occurred to me till I was in my late 20’s,” she said. “I grew up in a town where I knew no one in therapy. It wasn’t on my radar.” Mental health issues within her own family were one of the influences on her decision to pursue her current career. “Because there were mental health issues in my family, I had developed certain skills naturally. It came to me honestly, as it does for many people in the field.”
In the context of a family member’s treatment, she met and observed people in the field, and first began to consider it. Her parents were interested in issues of social justice. “I had those values and a tug towards wanting to be useful and wanting to make a difference.” Also, in her twenties, she briefly taught in Zimbabwe, where she found she enjoyed one-to-one exchanges more so than the classroom environment and began to consider counseling as a career.
Several years into practicing clinical social work, Sonja learned about EMDR. She would refer clients with trauma histories to therapists she knew practiced EMDR as she learned more about it. She attended an EMDR training where she participated in an exercise in which one person played the client, one the observer and one the therapist. She worked with sensors and went through an experience, just as I did with her.
“When I played [the] client I had a profound experience. Something happened to me that never happened to me before. It reached me in ways that talking had never reached me. It piqued my curiosity.” She felt that she reached a new way to address trauma and her emotions. Sonja completed the EMDR training over the course of the following year. “When I would start to use it with clients I noticed that they came out of it with a sense of wonder — What just happened to me? Something big just happened that I can’t describe!” EMDR allows Sonja a new access point for her work with patients who have experienced trauma.
Visit Sonja’s website to learn more about her EMDR practice.