Updated: Nov 4, 2021
The fundamental idea behind psychotherapy is that we tend to grow mentally unwell because we haven’t been able to think with sufficient clarity about the difficulties in our past, typically in our distant childhoods. Damaging incidents have been locked away, and continue to have an outsized impact on us, but we have no way of going back over them in order to liberate ourselves from their distorting influences. At the dawn of therapy, Sigmund Freud noticed that many patients, when asked about their childhoods, provided accounts that were too neat, too intellectual, too distanced from the emotion contained in events to be of any use. In order to encourage more real feeling, he made a radical innovation: he asked if his patients might lie on a couch, shut their eyes and enter a dreamy state that he called ‘free association’. He soon found that these patients recovered far faster than those who insisted on sitting in chairs. As a result, there are now couches in therapy rooms around the world – and the past has for many of us been a lot easier to access.
Then, in the early 1990s, an American psychologist called Francine Shapiro became fascinated, as Freud had been, with the damage done in therapy by our tendencies to intellectualise the past rather than relive it. Not coincidentally, Shapiro was at work on a PhD in English literature which drew her attention to a key difference between the methods of the non-fiction essay and those of the novel. In the former, an author provides neat summaries of positions and emotions: they might tell us that their mother was often ‘sad’ and their father ‘frightening’. But novelists do something very different, they provide us with ‘scenes’: they don’t state, they show. They take us to a particular moment and let us experience it vividly through our senses. With this distinction in mind, Shapiro wondered if patients in therapy could become more like novelists of their childhoods rather than just their non-fiction narrators. And it was here that she stumbled on a remarkable phenomenon. When we are asked to perform a repetitive movement – like tapping gently on our knees or our chests from left to right or look at a finger moving from side to side a few inches from our eyes – then our ordinary practical day to day mentality often cedes to a more trance-like, speculative state of consciousness (something similar can occur when we are on a long train journey in a quiet carriage and follow a line of telephone poles flashing past us). In this state, if we are asked to think back to a scene in our past, we may remember an emotional texture that would previously have eluded us; we become more like novelists than essayists. This special state became the bedrock of what Shapiro termed EMDR therapy (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing therapy). The EMDR therapist, entirely loyal to Freud’s basic insight about the need to bring traumatic scenes back to conscious awareness, invites patients to return to key scenes that make them who they now are, often scenes of great difficulty: their first night at boarding school, the day their mother told them about the divorce, the moment they were humiliated by a stranger. They are helped to linger in the past, to experience it in all its dimensions. The patient might cry in a way they haven’t in years – if ever. But the idea is not to abandon a younger self in one of the most difficult moments of their lives, it’s to help them find a way out of their pain. So an EMDR therapist might, after a time back in a foundational ‘scene’, ask the patient what they might want to tell their younger self; they might want to comfort them, to encourage them to be angry, to help them stop taking all the blame.
Before initiating a session of time travel, the EMDR therapist will also ask a patient to identify both someone who gives them support and someone who is wise. These two characters will then be asked to enter an early traumatic scene to give it a new, more redemptive ending. A current loving partner might be asked to comfort a child-self; Winnicott, the Buddha or Plato might say a few words to an angry father or weeping mother. In this way, EMDR honours the traditional ambitions of therapy: it renders conscious feelings that had been shut away, and it liberates us from the influence of the past through a deeper understanding of its secrets. But it has the added advantage of allowing us to reconnect with our histories via sensorily-rich scenes rather than analytical summaries. In this way, the world can become less oppressive and fear laden, as our formative moments are unearthed, understood and properly laid to rest.
How does EMDR work in a session?
EMDR stands for eye movement desensitization, reprocessing, and it helps people to recover from problems that are triggered by past trauma. It stops difficult memories from causing distress, and it helps the brain to reprocess those memories. EMDR can be used for a number of mental health issues. The therapy is recognised as an effective treatment by the World Health Organization. So it gives clients some reassurance that this therapy is backed by research. So what happens in an EMDR session?
Well, when you have experienced negative or traumatic experiences, causing you some chronic negative beliefs about yourself. There's a good chance that that memory has not been processed and it comes up again for you at times. And the intensity of the distress is always there. That memory gets stuck. And so we use our normal healing properties to manage that memory and to reduce the intensity of the distress, negative psychological thoughts, emotions, memories are processed during your sleep cycle. When you normally sleep throughout the evening, at some point you reach the REM cycle, which is potentially where we deal with all the emotions. There's something we know about the REM cycle. And that is that when we're processing that material, our eyes move, they move from side to side and it's part of the emotional processing. And we utilise that in EMDR during a session, the therapist will agree with the client the memory that they want to work on, and they may remember the sights or the sounds, or even the smells of what happened on that occasion. The client focuses on reconnecting with that event. And at the same time, their eyes are drawn to the therapist's hand during experiencing that memory or scene. The therapist will move the hand from side to side and the client is asked to focus on the fingers and keep with that movement. These are called bilateral stimulations and they will be done for a few moments. And then there will be a pause and the client is asked to report back on how they're feeling and the intensity of their emotion. They might also experience other thoughts and other memories connected to the incident. We return to the scene and more bilateral stimulations.
As we work through the session, the emotions lessen, and sometimes the thought processes change for that client to in a successful session, the emotion is reduced to zero and the processing has been done. The eye movement using the hand is the usual process that we would use, but also tapping, etc. EMDR is best known for its uses with PTSD and it's also widely used for other mental health problems. EMDR therapy can be conducted over an online setting (ie. video-conferencing) as well.
Reference from School of Life. We offer counselling, psychotherapy and life coaching to promote wellbeing and personal growth. Contact us to schedule your first session. Online session is available for anyone anywhere and we are located in CBD Singapore.