Learning to reprocess cyclic thoughts with EMDR therapy

Part 4 of a 5-part series

Is there some piece of your life that, when you reflect on it, makes you feel tense or stressed? Is there something you harbor long-term anger or resentment about? Need to forgive someone?

As mentioned in the first installment of this series, I was given an opportunity to spend time with a retired psychologist. In this article, I will share with you what I learned from him about Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy (EMDR).

As we begin, reflect on that piece of your life that makes you feel tense or stressed. Now, rate it on a scale of 1 to 10 – the lower the number, the less it bothers you, and vice versa. 

Now, how do you currently deal with this issue? Does the number stay the same or does it fluctuate? Can you quiet the noise inside your mind? 

Great. We’re both at the starting gates now. If you’ve never learned about EMDR, as I hadn’t, this is how the session began with Dr. Herrick.

My number was a 5, yet it fluctuates up to 7. How do I quiet it? Positive thinking, positive reinforcements, that type of stuff. 

“In 1987, Francine Shapiro was walking in the park when she realized that eye movements appeared to decrease the negative emotion associated with her own distressing memories.”*

She began to experiment with this process and identified others had the same positive response to eye movements. It was determined that eye movements on a standalone basis “did not create therapeutic effects and so [she] added other treatment elements, including a cognitive component,” initially referred to as Eye Movement Desensitization.*

This cognitive component included visualizing the disturbing thoughts and/or experiences. What was needed was to combine the Rapid Eye Movement (REM) with these disturbing thoughts so that the desensitization could occur.   

Since initial studies, hundreds of studies have been published and “have demonstrated the therapy’s effectiveness,”* when performed by a trained professional. 

Most of us are familiar with the basics of REM while we sleep. But maybe you don’t know why the brain produces REM. Herrick explained, “If there is something going on in the body, there’s a purpose – it’s not accidental.”

“That’s the subconscious mind integrating the emotional experiences of the day – of the period of life – and try to make some sense of it,” he said.  “It is like the mind trying to make sense of the thoughts and events that cause such distress,” he said.   

Fascinating, right? I can certainly pinpoint the segments of my life where sleep was different based on heightened stressors, as well as the opposite.   

So the premise of EMDR circles back to this, “Why don’t we create REM in a conscious state and see what happens to people with their stresses?”

The first thing that came to mind is the old-school way of relieving stress – commonly seen in a home study. Recall the stress balls that were filled with malleable gel or clay? You squeeze the ball repeatedly in an effort to relieve stress on that tense phone call or while trying to wrap your head around that looming life decision?  

EMDR “takes the thing you are struggling with and it reprocesses it,” Herrick said. “That’s what goes on in the REM: you desensitize and you reprocess issues that bother you in a healthier way.”

Remember last Monday when you woke up feeling all out of sorts but didn’t know why? The night before you probably were “asleep, dreaming, going back and forth – we don’t even know it goes on” and in that second phase of sleep “where you are desensitized and reprocessing, you didn’t get [whatever was on your mind] reprocessed [during the night].” 

The fact of the matter is it may take a day, days, or weeks to reprocess events and thoughts in our life. 

EMDR is a way to use REM as a “natural process, intentionally to deal with specific issues.”

When in his office, I was asked to keep my feet on the ground and really get in touch with the issue and the emotions of it. For the next few minutes I was instructed to tune into it, watch it in color (by creating a picture, situation, people, and feelings) and try to make it as real as possible. 

Thereafter I watched his fingers move in a certain pattern/sequence for about 2 minutes. I remained constant with my thoughts and feelings of the struggle. As Herrick explained, “Your brain will go where it needs to go, you can’t force it, it’s just going to happen.”

I was asked to gain clarity as to what I was feeling, how I was feeling.  Then he said “Take the major thought and open your eyes. Stay with that thought process and we will do EMDR again.” 

During this modality, “The brain takes the issue, desensitizes it, and reprocesses it in a more healthy, productive manner.” “This integration process results in a much healthier inner experience and adjustment to bothersome stressors,” he said. What was required, like most things in life, is to go “through a process of de-stressing in order to get to emotional wellbeing.” 

Liken it to seeing that gorgeous rainbow after an intense storm. As my Aunt reminded me, “This too shall pass.”

If I felt that it was “clarifying and the destressing part is happening,” I was to nod my head. My eyes continued to follow along with his fingers moving in a specific pattern. By the end of my first experience with EMDR, the tight feeling I had at inception had dissipated. I felt like no stress was hanging over me. It was a very positive experience. 

As Herrick said, there are a variety of therapies that can work for each individual. It’s all about finding the one(s) that work best for you. 

Whether you need to work through family issues, financial issues, work issues, personal issues, anything from childhood or present day, nothing is excluded from EMDR treatment to bring a sense of relief, new direction, and calmness. 

On a final note, he said, “The goal is to experience these therapeutic modalities, practice them at home, and apply them in a systematic manner in your own life.”

“Most people have a preferred modality that helps them accomplish their own emotional stabilization,” Herrick explained. 

In my viewpoint, having more accessible tools (modalities) at our disposal to reach a deeper level of peace, freedom from harboring thoughts and emotions, and provide a cascading effect for better health is worth learning about!



Watch for more in the series, “Therapeutic hypnosis: Ah-ha moments and afterthoughts” on May 11, 2023