This post talks about personal and professional experiences with online EMDR. If you’d like to read a study showing the impact of this method of therapy via telehealth, click here.
The Overwhelming Effects of Childhood Trauma
As a therapist who is also a survivor of childhood trauma, I’m acutely aware of how overwhelming Complex PTSD can be. Before I began my healing journey, I had difficulty managing my feelings because every situation felt scary to me. I constantly criticized myself for mistakes I thought I’d made when I looked back at social interactions. I felt awkward and uncomfortable around people because my negative thoughts about myself didn’t allow me to feel at ease in my body.
I also felt uncomfortable alone. If I wasn’t criticizing myself for a mistake I thought I’d made that made me look stupid in front of other people, I experienced a suffocating fear of silence. Whenever I was alone, I always used the radio or television to make sure the sound outside of me was louder than the misery I felt.
I believed that once I left my childhood home, I was free to leave all of the hurt and pain of that place behind me, except that my survival behaviors had become so habitual that they ran me on autopilot.
During my childhood, I developed an Anxious Attachment style based on a core belief that I wasn’t “good enough” to be loved without taking on the feelings of the person who hurt me. The resulting habit of ensuring their feelings were more important than mine would become my modus operandi. It didn’t always work, but it worked often enough that I learned very well – even excelled at – putting everyone else first and never thinking of my own needs.
This habit led me to a pattern of attracting people who matched my level of relationship skills. Unfortunately, that meant that I repeatedly found myself in relationships that were harmful to me.
Thankfully, I’ve done enough work since I left my childhood home over 30 years ago that I have been able to heal most of the impact of the mental and emotional injuries I sustained so long ago.
Coincidentally, while I struggled to navigate my post-childhood-trauma life, I became a therapist. At the time of this writing, I’ve been helping people heal childhood wounds for 27 years. I’m happy to report that with the study of my trauma responses and that of my clients, I’ve successfully developed practical tools that illuminate the path out of the pain caused by childhood trauma.
It hasn’t been easy. The field of trauma recovery was yet very young, with little to offer adults hurt as children at the time of my completion of graduate school. I remember finding great interest in anything I could get my hands on that would help my clients find relief as a newly licensed therapist in 2001. I had just finished studying Dr. Lenore Terr’s book (Too Scared to Cry), exploring the developmental impact of trauma on children. I found the information helpful for extrapolating the effects of childhood trauma and explaining to my adult clients why they still suffered so long past adverse childhood experiences.
First Impressions of EMDR Therapy
Around this time, I heard about a type of therapy that promised miraculous results by asking clients to think of traumatic experiences while watching their therapists wave their hands back and forth.
As a survivor who had worked so hard to identify and heal my trauma responses and to help my clients do the same, I was already well-informed about how complicated the healing process can be. At that time, I (like many other therapists) was still asking clients to talk about their traumas, believing this was necessary for the healing process.
I’ve since developed a process for healing from childhood trauma that doesn’t require telling the details of traumatic events for healing. It’s called The Trauma Erase Method (more on that in another post).
My point here is that similar to military veterans, I had a “we will” attitude, a sense of belonging within a community of people who suffered from childhood trauma, and a determination to make a difference that predisposed me to dismiss EMDR. I saw the simplistic method as a “magic pill” that somehow diminished the survivor experience rather than acknowledging and honoring it.
Filling Gaps and Healing What I Couldn’t Remember
Fast forward to twenty years later: I had done so much work toward eliminating my trauma responses, yet some of them appeared to remain deeply rooted in my body in ways I couldn’t access. I could feel their impact rising from my subconscious in imperceptible ways and flexing their ability to erode the hard-won happiness I had achieved.
Most notably, my anxious attachment style continued to show up in my healthy, safe relationship. It happened regularly enough that when I shared fears or reacted fearfully with my partner, we were left with the question: “Why am I still reacting like this when I know I’m safe?”
At the same time, over 25 years of helping survivors heal childhood trauma had led to some battle fatigue for me. I felt overwhelmed by my daily conversations with clients while looking for something to “round out” my skill set for supporting the healing process.
Since EMDR was still around and I’d had a positive experience with eliminating a lifelong recurring nightmare after one “experimental” session with a therapist mentor decades earlier, it was time for me to explore this modality to see what it offered. So, I enrolled in an online training through Personal Transformation Institute.
During the first training session, our instructor informed us that this training intended to teach the techniques and invite students to immerse themselves in the experience of Somatic and Attachment Focused EMDR.
Being the all-in person that I am, I committed immediately to immersion.
This commitment meant that during paired-up practice time with another student, I focused on my earliest memories in hopes that I’d find “something” there that might shed light on and improve my current level of well-being. My hopes were more than answered as I tapped into a memory that addressed my concerns about the enduring attachment anxiety that continued to linger even though I was in a safe relationship.
The pivotal moment: I chose to focus on an event just before I turned two years old. I had known of this event because of an ongoing injury it caused that I still live with today. But aside from the story I’d been told about it and enduring physical symptoms, there existed no memory in my conscious awareness.
During this “practice” session, my memory of being run over by a flatbed truck with my father at the wheel came to life.
Through the process, I saw exactly why I (as a toddler) opened the screen door to join my teenage parents, who were sharing a warm goodbye before my father was to leave for work. I longed to belong.
I witnessed myself walking past the truck’s passenger side and around the back. I also remembered the sequence of events that led to that driver’s side back tire driving over my torso when my father backed up.
During the EMDR practice, I felt all of the emotions. I cried the big cry that I couldn’t release as a toddler with a bodily awareness that my parents wouldn’t keep me safe. I connected with the fear and the sense of distrust that lived in my body ever after.
What I Realized and How It Improved My Ability to Receive Love
From this witnessing of forgotten events came a significant realization: I recognized that having parents who were too immature to sufficiently protect their child had nothing to do with my value.
Until this realization, every interaction with my loving, emotionally available partner was peppered with a deep sense of insecurity, unspoken and unexplored, arising from a mistaken belief that not being included and protected early in my life reflected directly on my value.
From that pivotal practice session until now (one year later), I remain at ease in my body, able to recognize myself as loveable and free from the anxious responses to connection that had followed me my entire life. I’m finally free to be my authentic self without fear or apology.
It feels amazing!
Tamara recently was interviewed by Liliana Hernandez on her Podcast about Childhood Trauma, EMDR and The Trauma Erase Method. If you’d like to listen, click here.
What is it like to experience EMDR online?
The best way I can describe the EMDR experience, as I’ve observed it for myself and my clients, is that it opens a memory portal similar to an immersive 3-D movie.
We start by completing a few assessments that allow us to understand how your current symptoms or behaviors developed as your “answer” to complicated situations in childhood. We honor those answers as valuable for having helped you survive while also recognizing that these aren’t useful for you anymore. (Putting others’ needs first to keep myself safe is an example from my life.)
You decide what to work on as you navigate your healing. I support you in your journey.
Before the EMDR work begins with the memories that cause your symptoms, we also explore to find exercises and practices that will increase your skill at soothing yourself when emotions become intense.
Then, when we are ready to begin, I’ll help you identify an early memory that connects to the current problem you’d like to overcome. I’ll ask you to describe a snapshot of the most challenging moment, along with the feelings in your body as you recall that moment and the thoughts you had about yourself then. After a few more questions, I’ll ask you to hold the awareness of the most challenging moment, awareness of the feelings in your body and that negative thought while you allow your eyes to follow the dots as you watch a screen that looks something like this:
You will hear a sound (that you’ve selected ahead of time) each time the dots hit the sides of the screen.
After several repetitions, I’ll stop the dots and ask what you notice.
You will notice that the original memory will become less emotionally intense, other similar memories will come to your awareness, and you may feel a range of emotions as the processing continues.
Most of the time, the intensity of the experience decreases as the processing continues.
We continue processing until the memory stops holding any negative emotion, and you can state a positive statement about yourself (that you’ve chosen before the processing began) with a high degree of belief.
In my experience, the immersive 3-D movie changes to include a broader perspective that allows adults hurt as children to stop blaming themselves for traumatic childhood events as the movie begins to “feel further away.” It becomes “just a memory” with no emotion attached to it.
When this happens, there is often a releasing of the behaviors used to help you survive the traumatic events. You can begin to make healthier choices guided by your in-the-moment awareness rather than motivated by an intense desire to keep yourself safe.
Now, you’ll know you’re safe. And you can make your choices according to your new perspective.
For me and the 50 clients I’ve worked with in the past year, it means greater freedom to be ourselves. Truly.
What can we accomplish with EMDR?
Now that I’ve told you who I am, how I rejected and then embraced EMDR, and a little bit about what doing EMDR online with me looks like, let me describe how EMDR works to help you heal childhood trauma.
- It Helps You Feel Safe in Your Body: Childhood trauma leaves a sense of being unsafe in your body. It does this because you had to stay activated and hyper-alert to watch for signals indicating that you needed to kick into your survival strategies. We can use EMDR to create a safe space for you using a unique video screen with moving dots that reminds you of a real or imagined place where you would feel safe and secure. Then, through a series of slow repetitions of the moving dots across the screen, we connect that image, how it makes you feel to imagine yourself in that space, and a cue word that helps your body relax. By using EMDR this way, you will have a tool for helping yourself stay calm and more relaxed during real-time situations outside of EMDR sessions.
- It Helps You Release Yourself From the Habits Caused by Childhood Trauma: As this post has explained, EMDR gives you a clear perspective about what happened during childhood in a way that unlocks unhealthy interpersonal habits like people pleasing, codependency and anxious or avoidant attachment styles.
- It Helps You Develop a Sense of Calm and Confidence About Future Events: After we’ve worked through traumas that happened in the past, we can replace your fear about upcoming events that are similar to things that happened to you in the past. We do this by allowing EMDR processing to cycle (watching the dots) while you run through a “movie” in your imagination that features you acting in your preferred way of thinking, feeling, and behaving during events that cause you to worry. We process this way until your feelings of confidence and calm are solid and believable enough for you to be excited about tackling previously scary situations in new ways.
I provide online therapy to California residents, and I work with Alma to cover your sessions when you are insured by Optum or Aetna. You can click this link to set up a free consultation with me through Alma.
If you have a PPO insurance policy, I work with a company called Advekit that will bill insurance for you, so you never have to worry about sending out-of-network invoices for reimbursement – all you pay is your co-insurance once your deductible is met!
Interested in a supportive group education/discussion about successfully participating in a relationship with a survivor of childhood trauma?
Or . . .
Wondering how I can help you heal from childhood trauma even if you don’t live in California or cannot afford individual therapy?
Take a look at my calendar and book a 15-minute chat and we’ll talk about options for healing.