What is EMDR?

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EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) is an evidence-based form of psychotherapy that uses eye movements to reduce the physical and emotional pain of traumatic memories. EMDR was developed by Francine Shapiro, who noticed that her eyes naturally moved back and forth when she thought about a painful memory.

What is Trauma?

Trauma is anything that overwhelms our ability to cope and causes lasting disruption to the nervous system. In some cases, trauma can develop into Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (click here to read the diagnostic criteria for PTSD). This can happen months or even years after the traumatic situation occurred. Trauma is not exclusive to combat or other violent conflicts. Many people experience the effects of trauma from neglectful childhoods, major illnesses, unexpected losses, having been bullied, or any other profoundly disturbing situation. You do not need to meet the criteria for a diagnosis of PTSD to experience effects of trauma or to benefit from EMDR.

What are Common Effects of Trauma?

Some experiences can’t be processed because they were too threatening or disturbing. When this occurs, our body doesn’t complete its natural stress responses and we get stuck experiencing the threat as if it were still happening. We can find ourselves swinging back and forth between a fight or flight response (feeling angry, afraid, irritable, impulsive, jumpy, hyper-alert) and feeling shut down, numb or disconnected from our surroundings and other people. If we didn’t receive social support, or if the trauma involved betrayal or victimization, then we can become more susceptible to developing these symptoms.

Trauma also causes problems with memory. During periods of intense stress, some regions of the brain that encode narrative memory can turn off while other regions that encode sensory or emotional memories remain active. This is why someone who’s gone through trauma might have disturbing emotional responses to sensory cues without knowing why.

Trauma can cause persistent beliefs that the world is unsafe, we are powerless, unlovable or unworthy, or that people—including ourselves and our own feelings—can’t be trusted.

How Does EMDR Help?

The first goal of EMDR is to develop and enhance positive internal resources (such as happy memories or images that invoke a sense of peace or stability). We all have state-dependent memory, which basically means we tend to have worse memories when we feel bad. As you can guess, this becomes a vicious cycle: we feel bad, so we remember bad things happening and feel even worse. When there’s been trauma and we’re reminded of it, we might start to believe the emotional memory (for example, shame or self-blame) instead of our rational thoughts. Developing internal positive resources helps us switch our mental and emotional state to deal with stress. We can also learn to identify when our nervous system has been activated and in what ways, which allows us to organize and navigate chaotic and overwhelming feelings so they don’t take over.

During the next stages of EMDR we distill the core negative belief and emotion produced by the trauma and identify what memories we want to work on. The objective of EMDR is to reconsolidate these memories. Reconsolidating a memory involves putting it in context with other life experiences and creating new associations.

Once we can effectively manage high levels of stress and draw on positive resources, eye-movements are used to help desensitize us to the most painful aspect of a memory. This involves some exposure to the traumatic memory, checking in with how our bodies respond to it, and drawing on positive resources when they’re needed. It’s like twisting the cap on a shaken soda bottle, but not so much that the bottle explodes. This goes on until the memory no longer causes debilitating emotional or physical reactions. After this stage of therapy, people often say they have less nightmares or can think about something they used to avoid; they feel sad but not overwhelmed by it.  

Next, we let our mind roam freely so that other memories linked up with a disturbing base feeling or belief can be transformed as well. The eye movements seem to activate networks of associated memories and loosen other structures in the brain to allow new associations to form. Many people have sudden insight or gain new perspectives during this stage of EMDR, or they access feelings and memories that have been suppressed for a long time. This provides an opportunity to work through and transform these memories in a safe place. One of the final stages of EMDR is to install a new positive belief until it feels true.

Why Does EMDR Work?

Nobody really knows why EMDR works. Some scientists believe EMDR mimics the REM (Rapid Eye Movement) stage of sleep, theorized to be our brain’s way of consolidating memories and letting go of what it doesn’t need to store. EMDR seems to loosen up rutted beliefs, helping our brains make new connections. EMDR also seems to activate memories while providing a bit of a soothing distraction through them.

 

Solstice for the Mind

In ancient winter solstice celebrations, trees played a large role in ceremonies. Evergreens were brought inside as a symbol for life, and gifts were hung on their branches to encourage the sun to return.

As you probably know, this winter solstice also happens to coincide with a near full moon, which looks magical.

The moon reminds us that life happens in cycles, pulling us one way and then another. In some cultures it’s a symbol for the subconscious mind, going through all phases of illumination or illusion.

This can be a time to reflect: In what ways am I resisting change? What am I holding onto that doesn’t work for me anymore? What do I need to safely feel, so that I can begin to release it?

Our minds have what some neuroscientists call a default mode network. This is our wandering mind, running through all the thoughts and worries that we’re used to having, and which tend to make us pretty miserable. When we’re focused on just about anything else, we unlock our mind from its default mode. We can be at peace, feel more alive.

This time of year also has me thinking about the value of some of my own struggles with mental health. Had I never felt stuck, needing to change something up, I wouldn’t have found most of the things that enrich my life, infuse it with meaning I wouldn’t have gone looking for otherwise. I think about that whenever I’m down. How do I make room for this dark space? What does it tell me about my values? And from that place of awareness, what gifts can I hang off my trees? What do I welcome into my life?

If you need to be cheered up on this shortest day of the year, click here.

Suicide Prevention and The Nine of Wands

Before I get into the heartbreaking topic of suicide—the tenth leading cause of death in the US—I want to talk about Tarot cards. Whatever your beliefs are, Tarot can be a fun way to gain insight and new perspectives.

I was shuffling my deck (the Rider-Waite deck, illustrated by Pamela Colman Smith, an artist, stage designer and suffragist who was given little credit for her work), and this card dropped out: The Nine of Wands.

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This card shows a person who is weary, barely hanging on to fight one more of many battles. It’s a card that says you’re fatigued, you’ve gone through too much, you’re feeling done. But you’re not done. You’re hanging on. There’s some part of you that wants to keep going. Underneath all of the pain, you are still there. And you’re about to push through.

Of course, when someone feels suicidal, they’re in too much pain to want to push through. They might feel isolated, mired in shame, believing they’re a burden. They might be coping with institutional prejudice. They might be clinically depressed or lacking the resources they need.

Often, they’re surviving trauma. “Psychological” trauma is a physical condition—it’s the result of anything which overwhelms our ability to cope and causes lasting dysregulation to the nervous system—which is why we can’t just “get over it,” and why we need a body-mind approach to get through it.

We’re all vulnerable to feeling this way. If you’re ever suicidal, you’re not alone. There are people who want to help. Social support soothes the nervous system, dissolves shame. There are people who have some knowledge and experience about what you’re going through. You are a part of this world.

Here are some helpful insights from people I’ve worked with, who are some of my best teachers and sources of inspiration.

        • Just because you were not shown love, does not make you unlovable (even when you feel that way, it simply isn’t true).
        • You’re not broken because you suffered. You now have that much more capacity for love and compassion.
        • It’s ok to acknowledge that you really don’t want to be here anymore, but no emotions are permanent. They all pass eventually.
        • You are not defined by what happened to you.

If you are in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Line, available to anyone 24 hours a day, 7 days a week 1-800-273-TALK (8255). All calls are confidential.

For information on trauma and recovery, I recommend these books:

The Body Keeps the Score, by Bessel Van Der Kolk

Waking the Tiger, by Peter Levine

From Shame to Self-Compassion

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When I talk about self-compassion, people often want to know where to start. Self-compassion might seem hard to attain, almost a platitude.

And I get it—I used to have a lot of anger and shame and the idea of accepting myself seemed counter-productive. How could I accept such bad feelings? I wanted to pretend they weren’t there and just…be better. But they showed up in vivid dreams and destructive patterns in relationships. I had strong physical sensations (that always had me going to the doctor, until I realized they were caused by anxiety) and pretty unhealthy coping behaviors. I did some good things with my life, but underneath it all I felt like a fraud.

I can look back on all of that now and see how distorted my thinking was, how “unreal” that sense of inadequacy is—but it can sure feel real. That’s why pushing it under and ignoring it doesn’t help.

Because the thing with deep, entrenched shame—and I’m talking about the kind of feeling that makes you believe you can’t be happy, or loved, or even want to exist—is you can’t just talk yourself out of it. Until you’ve transformed it by walking through its fire and learning different ways of responding to that pain, then it will continue to disrupt your life.

All things happen in cycles. I’ve had profound moments of forgiveness and inspiration. Months later, I would experience an upwelling of the same old anger and hurts. Because I had the experience of compassion for myself, I had a softer way of responding to the pain. I became a little less reactive and the shame was quicker to dissipate. I felt more empowered by my choice in how to respond to what I felt, and I could accept the struggle. I tried difference techniques and perspectives, and went with the practices that resonated with me, discovered things I loved in the process.

Many people despair that they continue to feel their shame despite the work they’ve done for themselves. And because they continue to feel this, they compound the shame with more shame over not being over it already, or messages they get from others about what their healing should look like.

Just because you have the tools doesn’t mean you’ll feel 100 percent better. You are using those tools to build your new way of being from the ground up. While there might be some setbacks and getting stuck, there will also be joy and empowerment as you find your way. You’re courageously looking at your “dark” or “unwanted” personality traits, and this isn’t easy to do. The process lies in finding the support you need to figure out the original source and function of these feelings, and learning to change your relationship with yourself and the world around you.

When I was in art school for painting, a teacher told me that my process was too inefficient because I made a big old mess in the beginning, then created something beautiful in the end. But that just was my process!

I don’t mind any of the chaos behind me, because that’s what it took to get me where I am now. That’s a feeling I want for everyone, on their own timeline, not anyone else’s. It’s powerful when you learn to give yourself grace, to treat yourself well in some of your darkest moments. We don’t have to rush or beat ourselves up to get it done. ❤