Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy is an extensively researched, effective psychotherapy method proven to help people recover from trauma and other distressing life experiences, including PTSD, anxiety, depression, and panic disorders.
Who can benefit from EMDR therapy?
EMDR therapy helps children and adults of all ages. Therapists use EMDR therapy to address a wide range of challenges:
Anxiety, panic attacks, and phobias
Chronic Illness and medical issues
Depression and bipolar disorders
Grief and loss
PTSD and other trauma and stress-related issues
Substance abuse and addiction
Violence and abuse
How is EMDR therapy different from other therapies?
EMDR therapy does not require talking in detail about the distressing issue or completing homework between sessions. EMDR therapy, rather than focusing on changing the emotions, thoughts, or behaviors resulting from the distressing issue, allows the brain to resume its natural healing process.
EMDR therapy is designed to resolve unprocessed traumatic memories in the brain. For many clients, EMDR therapy can be completed in fewer sessions than other psychotherapies.
How does EMDR therapy affect the brain?
Our brains have a natural way to recover from traumatic memories and events. This process involves communication between the amygdala (the alarm signal for stressful events), the hippocampus (which assists with learning, including memories about safety and danger), and the prefrontal cortex (which analyzes and controls behavior and emotion). While many times traumatic experiences can be managed and resolved spontaneously, they may not be processed without help.
Stress responses are part of our natural fight, flight, or freeze instincts. When distress from a disturbing event remains, the upsetting images, thoughts, and emotions may create feelings of overwhelm, of being back in that moment, or of being “frozen in time.” EMDR therapy helps the brain process these memories, and allows normal healing to resume. The experience is still remembered, but the fight, flight, or freeze response from the original event is resolved.
For centuries, people have applied mindfulness to everyday life as a way to enhance clarity and focus. Today, we can apply this tool to better relate and respond to our busy minds, that are sometimes too full to interact or even function.
Simply put, mindfulness is awareness. Awareness of our current, present experience and not that of past (regrets, sadness, loss) nor future (worries, fears, anxieties).
When we find ways to better respond and relate to our overwhelmed minds, do we really ‘fix’ the problems holding us back?
Not exactly ~ like many other worthwhile aspects of life, this is a practice, and that involves repetition. It includes the recognition that life involves suffering. This is not about pushing away these anxieties, worries, losses, regrets and sadness, but finding a way to make room for them all.
How can we do this? Invite ourselves into this moment.
The past has passed.
The future is not yet here.
All we have is the present, which can bring us some peace ~ perhaps in forgiveness (past) or calm (redirecting from future worries). This is mindfulness.
By identifying these very elements (anxiety, regret, anger, panic) as they approach, and without their attached story, we are already giving ourselves room to return to the present. We do it with softness, kindness and without judgment.
This is mindfulness.
We can mindfully wash the dishes, brush our teeth or take a walk. Keeping our awareness on what we can see, touch, hear and experience. This is mindfulness.
Life is never still ~ the mind is never still. Awareness is always still.
Settling into the present may liberate us from the busy mind (perhaps taking us into the past or future).
“Most people are afraid of suffering. But suffering is a kind of mud to help the lotus flower of happiness grow. There can be no lotus flower without the mud.”
~ Thich Nhat Hanh
Most of us are forgetful ~ we are not really here a lot of the time. Our minds are caught up in worries, fears, anger, regrets and not mindful of being here. We are caught up in the past or in the future, which sadly results in us not living our lives fully in the present moment.
It is human nature for our minds to wander ~ it’s just what it does with thoughts and the stories that accompany them. When we recognize that our mind has wandered, we can access mindfulness to bring ourselves back ~ without judgement or criticism and stories; just accepting we are back and have the opportunity to start again.
We bring ourselves back by opening our eyes to what is in front of us, our ears to what we can hear and allowing our minds to experience this.
Think for a moment about all of the birds outside our window that we may have silenced by the active mind, or the sunsets and sunrises missed when worries flooded our minds.
If we mindfully return to the present, even for a moment, we have stopped talking (not only the outside conversation, but the inside talking, our mental discourse).
Then, we can fully awaken to what is in front of us while, even briefly, the rest seems to settle. We become aware of something, such as a flower, and we can be liberated from the anger, despair, worries and fears that previously took us away.
Sometimes, in conservative cultures, there is sexual shame attached to the usage of pornography. Listen in to hear the brain science behind pornography use, as well as how to navigate the topic of pornography as a couple, family, and society. Visit the link below or listen on your favorite podcast platform.
We have many internal and external resources available to us when anxiety becomes overwhelming. We can typically recognize an unhelpful anxious thought because it often starts with some variation of “What if…” and or is predicting negative events that are possible but incredibly unlikely. In this post, I will briefly outline some of the internal and external resources that can be extremely effective in confronting and managing anxiety.
1) Talking back to and Challenging Anxious Thoughts:
Anxiety is like an annoying know-it-all and overly critical boss; it constantly points out what might go wrong or what it thinks you didn’t do right, and it is usually flat out wrong! When we talk back to or challenge anxious thoughts with phrases like, “I’m allowed to make mistakes!” or “I’m enough as I am!” and “You don’t know everything!” we are bossing back our anxiety and taking charge.
2) Past Successes:
What difficulties have you overcome in the past? How did you do that? What did you learn about yourself? Anxiety likes to make us forget or discount all the challenges we have overcome in the past. But, as we stack up our past successes, we are reminded of just how capable we really are, no matter what anxiety says.
3) Problem Solving Skills, Creativity/Imagination:
Clearly you have gotten yourself this far in life, which means you have solved literally thousands of problems. Life throws curve balls at us regularly, and it is our creativity, imagination and problem-solving skills that help us work through them. When anxiety says things like, “What if you get sick?” We can say back to anxiety, “Then I will rest, get lots of fluids and take care of myself. I know what to do when I am sick.”
Some problems and concerns are outside of our experience and skill set to solve. Who do you have in your life that you could go to for help? Make a list of people in each arena of your life that you feel comfortable approaching and asking for help. For example, who at work can help you when you have questions or problems? When you are at school, who is most likely to have the information you need? Our external resources include people in our support systems, people who know us and care about our well-being and are invested in our success: parents, teachers, friends, family members, coaches and teammates, therapists etc.
When anxious thoughts and feelings begin to escalate, start by recognizing these feelings for what they are, ANXIETY, and then access your internal and external resources to challenge and talk back to your anxiety.
Brene Brown has said “Choose courage over comfort. Choose whole hearts over armor. And choose the great adventure of being brave AND afraid at the exact same time.” (Emphasis added)
After months of living through the pandemic, homeschooling two of my four children, having a newborn and busy toddler vying for attention during homeschooling, working over Telehealth, quarantining from family and friends, kissing my husband goodbye as he goes to works with sick people, and managing my own thoughts and anxiety about the world I have learned a very important lesson. You can feel brave and afraid at the same time.
My emotional journey the last several months has been sporadic. At times, I have felt very hopeful and optimistic. Other times, I have felt sad and anxious. After experiencing an anxiety attack in April, I realized I had to change my thought process. My mantra became “cautious but not fearful.” I pushed fear away and decided to let hope reign supreme. Gone were the days of worrying about what would happen if my parents contracted the virus. Say goodbye to stressing about exposure to people, and what it would be like if/when my family got sick. My mind was aware of the hospitals and medical staff, but I would not let that transfer into fear and worry. I let myself think that if I felt any fear at all I was letting fear win. I was wrong.
What have I learned about myself during this pandemic? I have learned that I can feel brave and afraid at the same time. In reality, the worried and stressful thoughts were and are still coming at regular intervals. The difference is when the fear comes, I no longer hide from it. Pushing the fear/worry/anxiety down gives it more power. Locked in the recess of your mind fear-or whatever you would like to call it-is biding its time until you are not ready for it. Then BAM out it comes with a lethal vengeance. Covid-19 has taught me to acknowledge the fear. When those fearful thoughts come into my mind I identify them and acknowledge their existence. Instead of running from the thoughts, I put my arm around them and let my bravery take over.
I can be fearful and brave at the same time. I can worry about what is happening across the world and still have hope that it will get better. I can be worried about our healthcare workers while allowing my gratitude for them to overshadow that worry. I can stand in the face of my husband, children, parents, and loved ones contracting the virus because I know that there are people and enough love in my life that will help me get through it. I have learned to hold both of these things in my hands and heart and be alright with that. And Brene is right…it is truly an adventure.
We live in a world where we are being fed a constant stream of information at, seemingly, every turn. It can be easy to get lost in all the noise, and disconnect from our core sense of self, worth, and values. When that happens, one might experience depression, anxiety, feeling untethered, resentment, and unhealthy relationships, among others. One of my greatest steps in my own journey was learning how to come out of the self-betrayal that had become familiar and comfortable.
What is self betrayal? Self betrayal can manifest in many different ways. It can be sacrificing your own values and boundaries to maintain a relationship, saying “yes” when you actually want to say “no,” people pleasing, perfectionist tendencies in an effort to feel, or be seen as, “enough,” or living in a cycle of shame from not understanding the wounds that drive behavior. In a sense, it is disconnecting from that voice of truth within.
Learning to connect to your most authentic self can be scary and liberating, all in the same breath. Some tools to help you connect to this authentic self can be:
-Meditation and mindfulness exercises -Truth and distortion journaling prompts -Future self authoring exercises -EMDR, and other somatic work to process past trauma -Inner child work and attachment healing
As you learn to connect and find belonging to your truest self, you will find deeper and more meaningful connections in your relationships, as they are no longer responsible for filling your cup of worth. If you have experienced self betrayal in your life, and are wanting to find healing, know that you have all the tools of healing within you to begin this journey. An experienced counselor can help you unlock those tools when you find yourself feeling stuck.
Are you wondering why so many people who don’t have COVID-19, or even know anyone who has been diagnosed are seeing a spike in feelings of anxiety? It’s not just because of the many changes in our communities and around the world since the pandemic began: over 26 million Americans were out of work, K-12 schools and universities nationwide closed overnight and many of us spent weeks or months inside our homes and yards not socializing. However,change and stress are not the main sources that fuel anxiety, they are simply kindling. The real lighter fluid and gasoline is UNCERTAINTY.
When is school going to start back up? What is that going to be like? Will students really wear a mask all day? How long until we REALLY know how this disease affects people? What if someone I care about gets COVID-19 and dies? What if I test positive for COVID-19 and have to stay home for 14 days?
All of these are valid concerns and questions. It is normal to feel some anxiety in new situations,like starting a new school year, a new job, moving to a new place or living through a worldwide pandemic for the first time. Uncertainty lies underneath all of these situations and questions. We often think, “If I have answers and information I can be prepared, and my anxiety will calm down.” It might, for like a minute. But that doesn’t prevent uncertainty popping up in other areas of our life, on a regular basis. (More on that in my next post).
Anxiety serves a very important function of protecting us. It’s the feeling that tells us we should put our seat belt on when we get into a car or wash our hands after touching common surfaces in public.
However, for some of us, anxiety has too much power and control in our lives. It acts as a bossy, know-it-all alarm and yells loudly about horrible, scary things that could (but are not likely to) happen and that is when it becomes problematic. It often starts with one worry or concern and quickly spirals into 10 worries or more. Remember, ANXIETY LOVES UNCERTAINTY. It feeds on it and grows exponentially like Mentos dropped in a Coke bottle:
“What if people don’t wear masks and I get sick? What if I spread it to my sweet old neighbor (who I have never talked to or met) who walks her dog and she dies and its my fault? What if all my friends get COVID-19 from me and then they don’t want to be my friend anymore? Who am I going to sit with at lunch? What if we don’t ever go back to school?!!! How am I going to get into college and get a good job? What if this pandemic never ends…?” And on and on it spirals.
Anxious thoughts often have a small grain of truth in them and frequently center around a possible, but unlikely, scenario or chain of events.
So, what can we do to handle so much uncertainty in our lives and manage out of control anxiety? It starts with externalizing the anxious thoughts and worry, (it’s not you, it’s the anxiety that hangs out with you) predicting when it will show up and creating phrases to say back to and refute the worry.
Example: “Listen anxiety, I knew you were going to show up when I went to school today, but none of the bad things you predict EVER happen. I don’t need you right now, you can go away.”
When we predict the anxiety, we won’t feel blindsided by it and we already know it’s anxiety overreacting. In my next post, I will go into more detail about how to access the resources within ourselves we all have to manage bossy, know-it-all anxious thoughts and retrain our brain to be more helpful and accurate instead of a Chicken Little alarm clock.
Bessel A. van der Kolk, a leading trauma expert, said, “As I often tell my students, the two most important phrases in therapy, as in yoga, are “Notice that” and “What happens next?” Once you start approaching your body with curiosity rather than with fear, everything shifts.”
Through my clinical work over the past 10 years, I have found the body to be one of the greatest teachers in helping clients to connect with, and heal from, trauma that is stored in the body. Stored trauma often manifests itself physically, such as with anxiety, panic attacks, nightmares, fear, and other “uncomfortable” emotions. Consequently, our bodies are often feared, rather than embraced as the wise teacher it is.
I have found one of the most powerful tools in helping myself, and my clients, stay in a state of curiosity, rather than fear, of these bodily sensations is the breath. When triggered by these bodily sensations mentioned above the body typically moves into the sympathetic, or fight or flight nervous system. Often, clients with trauma have learned to operate in this nervous system more often than is useful. The breath is a powerful bridge between the sympathetic and parasympathetic, or “rest and digest,” nervous systems.
Next time you find yourself filled with anxiety, I challenge you to take four deep “box” breaths, where you breathe in for four counts, hold for four counts, breathe out of four counts, and hold for four counts. After which, maintain the deep breathing pattern and notice what is happening in your body physically, and breathe into any tension you find. Then, remain curious and ask yourself what is needed to help you feel safe and secure in the present moment. At that point you may ask, “what happens next?” Take note of what inner child wounds or beliefs may be surfacing, and allow yourself to sit with that wound to find truth. Learning to become curious about thoughts that once seemed overwhelming, scary, or insurmountable can be an empowering exercise when you start unwinding unhelpful past conditioning.
Sometimes with trauma, clients may find themselves feeling stuck at certain points of traditional talk therapy. If that has been the case, it is helpful to explore other modalities to help release trauma on a cellular level, such as EMDR. Other movement based interventions such as yoga, tai chi, qigong, and dancing have also been found to be helpful in healing trauma. If you have found yourself stuck in processing past trauma, please feel free to reach out to see if we can explore some additional healing modalities. You can schedule by calling 801.944.4555.