What To Know About EMDR Therapy
“Would you want to do some trauma work?” my therapist asked.
Who wants to do trauma work?
“I’ve been in talk therapy for years. Despite making progress—like learning ‘angry’ doesn’t always mean ‘dangerous’—I sometimes feel stuck.”
Like too many people, I didn’t grow up in the stablest household. It was scary. It was volatile. I’m happy to still be here.
I’ve been in talk therapy for years. Despite making progress—like learning “angry” doesn’t always mean “dangerous”—I sometimes feel stuck. Trying seven medicines for anxiety and depression hasn’t fixed the stuck-ness. Some of the trauma feels trapped in my body, like panicking when someone approaches too quickly. Some feels trapped in my mind, like having a tenuous grip on self-confidence and assuming the littlest defeat will destroy everything. Therapy progress has felt like I’ve been cleaning a house top to bottom, only to bat and bat at cobwebs that won’t knock loose.
My therapist recommended a specialized mind-body treatment called EMDR, or eye movement desensitization and reprogramming. Time to attack those cobwebs.
Off to trauma work it was.
I’d only heard of EMDR in passing. If you’re as confused as I was, then here’s the gist.
“EMDR is a mental health treatment using bilateral movements (movements on both sides of your body) to neutralize trauma sensations.”
EMDR is a mental health treatment using bilateral movements (movements on both sides of your body) to neutralize trauma sensations. Clinicians adopted it in the late ’80s to treat PTSD, and studies have shown benefits for other types of trauma. Some patients show major improvement after just a few sessions.
Usually, EMDR requires moving your eyes back and forth in specific ways; sometimes it involves sound cues or tapping alternating arms or thighs. Providers don’t know exactly why it works—one theory says it’s related to REM-sleep-type movements. Still, the World Health Organization (WHO) and American Psychological Association (APA) recognize its worth. Prince Harry does it briefly in this clip.
After a consultation, I booked my first appointment with an EMDR practitioner. She’d concisely explained the treatment’s eight phases, and I liked her. We’d start by sharing background information, then wade into target memories—at whatever pace—while addressing bodily tension, mental distress, and negative self-beliefs.
Sounded decent. Then the day of my first treatment, I had a panic attack and canceled.
Huh? I’d recounted the same memories in talk therapy, no problem. But EMDR would require going deeper and staying there. Stating the facts and moving on? Easy. Really thinking back? Yikes.
My therapist coaxed me down, emphasizing the pace could be glacial if necessary. We set a date to try again.
My session started positively, focusing on a recent achievement (winning a business award) and reflecting on my favorite qualities about people who made me feel safe.
“We were building the ultimate squad: protectors who’d demonstrate what support would have felt like way back.”
We were building the ultimate squad: protectors who’d demonstrate what support would have felt like way back. The team was fake, so I thought big. A few friends and family members, plus Malala Yousafzai.
All this was going down over Zoom, video on. I was where I usually was for remote therapy: sitting in bed. (In my little cocoon but still feeling professional-ish since I sit upright and wear regular clothes.)
With the therapist’s guidance and with my eyes closed, I imagined each person’s power and kindness. When I could feel that—for me, as warmth in my chest—I “tapped in” the feeling. I crossed my arms over my chest and patted alternating shoulders for 30 or 60 seconds. We tapped in the whole team, then a happy place (a Caribbean beach) that could offer a reprieve if necessary. Then, we waded in.
The therapist didn’t want to start with the darkest memory. We settled on a medium-dark one.
It involved a particularly cruel punishment from my father, who complained I hadn’t paid him enough attention in public one day. His reprimand? Having me stand in the middle of our living room, eyes down, while he hurled insults that could have crushed a well-adjusted adult. I was 7.
I closed my eyes and described what I remembered—not just facts, but feelings and details. The look of the grubby carpet. The sticky air. The tone of the voice, brimming with hatred yet eerily calm.
I opened my eyes. My therapist asked what I’d think about that scene if it were in a movie.
That the man was pathetic, I told her. What could a child do to trigger something so cruel?
“What’s the negative self-belief in the real memory?” she asked.
“It’s tiring, trying to beat a game when the game is nothing but chaos.”
Back then, I was exhausted. I could never navigate the anger maze well enough to make it stop. It’s tiring, trying to beat a game when the game is nothing but chaos.
“It sounds like, ‘I’m never enough?'” the therapist guessed. My chest tightened with stress, so she’d hit on something.
“Close your eyes again,” she said. “This time, lean into the anger.”
How dare you. In the revised scene that appeared—I didn’t have to force the vision—a couple of teammates chewed him out and shut him up. When that alternate memory felt real, a minute of taps locked in the feeling.
We continued for the rest of that session and the next. My reaction progressed as the scenes evolved—anger, then laughter at a pitiful man, then lightness at the thought of escaping while he got locked up.
“What’s the discomfort level?” my therapist would ask between rounds, guiding a body scan to check for distress. I started at a seven. Then popped down to a two. Then ended at nothing.
“Where my chest had clenched with anxiety, my heart felt more open.”
Where my chest had clenched with anxiety, my heart felt more open. And I know this might sound fake or forced, but I’m serious. I knew the real scene happened. I couldn’t change that. But I saw the scene’s villain as the nothing that he was.
My therapist asked what positive self-belief would replace the negative one.
“I’m good,” I told her. “I’m a kind, caring, generally good person.” I felt it that time, and it felt true.
A few friends have asked if I’d recommend EMDR. Everyone’s different. I’m no professional. But while digging into an old memory hurt, the release was worth the pain.
“But while digging into an old memory hurt, the release was worth the pain.”
Here’s what happened in the final version of the scene, right before we reached a zero.
When that sad, sad man tried to start in, I put up my hand and told him to stop. He tried to yell but his voice was gone.
My grandmother walked in with a couple bodyguards, and we zipped down the road to her house where—for some reason—she was hosting a picnic with the whole squad to celebrate my moving in with her. (Malala showed. Great, right?)
Instead of being voiceless, I heard Little Jill giggling as she bounced from table to table, petting a tabby kitten and blowing bubbles and doing whatever ridiculously wholesome things 7-year-olds do when they’re free to be 7-year-olds. I teared up.
We broke free.
I had a few hours of emotional whiplash after the third and final session dedicated to that memory and attributed it to batting at cobwebs. By the next day I was fine, and I plan to go back after a break. My body feels more unstuck now. Confidence? Edging higher.
The thing I’ll remember most about that work is the laugh of a 7-year-old. A good, kind, sweet little person who saw some dark times and could still appreciate the good in life. Her giggle? The sweetest sound. To me, she has always been enough.
Jill Hilbrenner is a writer based in Beacon, New York, where she owns the natural beauty and floral shop Witch Hazel. She lives with her husband, Mike, and two rescue dogs, Blanche and Suzy Lee.