I have mentioned on this blog before how I am receiving counseling (aka therapy) as a part of my self-care regimen and to better address the way I have been living with myself mentally for the majority of my life. However, I haven’t mentioned one of the ways that my therapist has been helping me deal with flashbacks. We use a technique called EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing).

In layman’s terms, EMDR is a psychotherapy technique that helps address “traumatic” memories and reprogram thought and emotional responses to those memories in a shorter timeline than traditional psychotherapy. In the words of my therapist, “It does the work of therapy without all the talking.”

We haven’t used EMDR extensively, but when we have, it has been very effective with the way my mind interacts with my flashback memories. Because of that, I wanted to share my latest experience with EMDR to try to explain how helpful it is.

The memory we used doesn’t seem traumatic on the surface: it was the first and only spelling bee that I ever participated in. I was in elementary school, but I was older, so fourth or fifth grade. I had always been a good speller, but I had turned down all my previous opportunities to participate because I was afraid to stand up in front of everyone to spell. So, for some reason, I decided I would buck up and do something new this time and participate. My first word was “truly.” And I was so nervous that I forgot the “r.”

Admittedly, this doesn’t sound like the worst experience in the world, but this is one of the flashbacks that frequently pop into my head and punch me in the gut with embarrassment, shame, guilt, and any other number of negative emotions that leave me crippled and breathless for a few moments. Because of this, my therapist felt it was a prime target for EMDR.

For EMDR, I was given a pair of headphones that had very soft clicking noises playing. In addition, I held small vibrators in my hands that alternated vibrating, from one hand to the other. It’s hard to describe effectively, but I was asked to repeatedly dive into a slow-motion recollection of the memory while listening to the clicks and feeling the vibrations in my hands, with closed eyes and in an otherwise quiet room. Every 15-30 seconds, my therapist stops the technology and asks me a simple question: “what did you notice?” (or some variation of that). Somehow, this brings new details to light and allows the mind to notice things about the memory that were either missed or disregarded before.

In the case of this memory, I realized that it was just a silly mistake. Not only that, but that there were a lot of people rooting for me in that moment, people who were just proud of me for stepping outside my comfort zone and trying something new. The fact that I messed up on my first word meant nothing: I had made it into the spelling bee, as I had every year, and was actually participating.

EMDR very tangibly reprogrammed the negative emotions I had associated with this memory, and instead gave me a new perspective to use when thinking about it. This memory no longer appears in my flashback repertoire, and instead I can recall it and relive it in my mind without a twinge of shame, embarrassment, etc.

EMDR is effective for me in slowly working through my flashbacks and stopping them one by one, although it won’t help me stop them at the root. That’s something that I will have to work on for a long time. However, it does help me in the battle. That’s something that I can’t just pass by.

-Wilber

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