I want you to imagine yourself as a child. At some point, we were all children; only a couple of feet tall, perhaps infants, without words or coordinated movements. For all of us, there was a time when everything that we encountered was brand new. We might have only done things a couple of times, maybe a couple of hundred times, but definitely not billions of times as could be said of human beings in adulthood. I want you to see a picture of that time for yourself right now.
How do you feel in that picture?
How do you feel about the child you are seeing?
What do you want that child to know about you?
It is possible that at this point I have lost your attention, and everything I have just said sounds really out there. Bear with me though, because what I am talking about here is largely about memory formation and information processing, two key processes in a therapeutic technique called EMDR- Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing.
Let me start by explaining a couple of things about memory. A lot of us claim to have accurate recollections about things that have happened (I know I have said this more times than I want to admit). However, memory processes – from encoding, to storage, to retrieval – are quite faulty. Further, things like context, setting, sequence of events, and a variety of cognitive processes can further distort perception and information altering what we are left to think about.
In general, this is not a big deal. We all manage this one way or another whether what we want to remember are answers for trivia night or what happened during that family dinner 10 years ago. Even when it comes to remembering events that might be stressful or disturbing, our minds have the capacity to adaptively resolve whatever comes our way (Shapiro, 1995, 2001). Human beings usually talk about things, think about things, and can distinguish between “what happened then” as supposed to “what is happening now” (Knipe, 2015). In most cases, we utilize our adaptive skills and move on.
Now consider all of this in the context of trauma. “Trauma is when the natural information processing system fails, and the memory of the disturbing event becomes dysfunctionally stored within the individual’s memory networks” (Knipe, 2015). Our information processing systems get overwhelmed when something stressful happens leaving us with memories that are distorted and embedded with intense emotions. The impact of traumatic memories can be long-lasting as trauma itself disrupts our natural meaning-making ability.
Can you imagine what these memories, or pictures inside our minds, might look like when they have been colored by trauma? Can you imagine the sensations, the visceral responses that our bodies might have when subjected to these images playing within us? Certainly, most of us have had discrete instances of this happening: a car crash, a mugging, a natural disaster. For others, the pictures are embedded within long movies of on-going toxic stressors such as abuse or violence.
This is where EMDR comes in. Developed in the late 80s by Francine Shapiro, PhD, EMDR connects upsetting memories with bilateral stimulation (typically eye movements). The pairing of holding a memory in mind with movements that activate both sides of the brain has been found to reduce the intensity and the emotion associated with the memory. I should emphasize that, even though it might sound challenging to think about something stressful that has happened, the focus is on the grounding provided by the bilateral stimulation. It is also important to add that EMDR trained therapists utilize various techniques to anchor people in a sense of safety. Our goal is never to overwhelm the natural healing capacities of our bodies, but to support them.
Something that I love about EMDR is that it is based in the body. It doesn’t require an over functioning and intellectualized capacity; it doesn’t ask for verbose explanations of our psyche or the subconscious. Instead, it connects to the places in our bodies where we already carry our stories, it allows us to see them, and choose what we would prefer to hold instead. EMDR, in my opinion, also invites us to dare to imagine our healing. Once we are no longer so activated by how the trauma has been stored within us, we can work towards embodying our visions of hope and nurturance.
In my own therapeutic work, I too was asked to see a version of myself from long ago. A skilled and elegant therapist guided me to notice and be with the emotions held by that child. EMDR effectively reduced my sensitivity and reactivity, even in the areas of life that I had not known were connected with that child. Towards the end of my EMDR work, as my natural healing abilities were more restored, I imagined this child growing tall as a tree, able finally to look at her troubles from above, as if they could not harm her anymore.
I am happy to report that during the month of August, 2022, I was able to finalize a 2+ year training process to be not just an EMDR trained therapist, but also be able to call myself an EDMR Certified therapist. I share this in celebration with you as it is ultimately work that gives back to our community as we all dare to imagine what healing looks like. I now begin another 2 year journey to become an EMDR Consultant, a designation that will allow me to do more capacity-building in the professional community for aspiring EMDR clinicians. My goal is to focus on BIPOC and Spanish-speaking therapists.
So in the spirit of EMDR, see that picture of yourself from a long time ago, the one that you began thinking about when you started reading this blog post. Turn that young person towards you and show them some of what you have accomplished. Let them know that you are here for them now, and you will make sure they are safe. Whatever they have been through, that was then, and this is now… you are here.
Shapiro, F. (1995). Eye Movement desensitization and reprocessing: Basic principles, protocols and procedures. New York, NY; Guilford Press.
Shapiro, F. (2001) Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing: Basic principles, protocols, and procedures (2nd edition). New York, NY: Guilford Press.
Knipe, J. (2015) EMDR Toolbox: Theory and treatment of complex PTSD and dissociation. New York, NY: Springer Publishing Company.
If you would like to watch an introductory video about EMDR, go to EMDRIA, the professional association for EMDR therapists and researchers.