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The Therapy That Helped Me Conquer Traumatic Memories

“We need a flight attendant! Now!” The passenger’s sudden, shrill plea for help sent me into panic mode on the sunrise flight from Chicago to Grand Rapids, Michigan. I’m a nervous flyer as it is; then someone passed out two rows in front of me, creating a buzz of anxiety on the plane. Fortunately, the situation resolved itself quickly, and the passenger came to before paramedics ushered her off the plane at the concourse. But when everyone else moved on, I couldn’t.

Even though I was able to stop thinking about the plane emergency, I wasn’t able to shake the way it made me feel. It was like my body was holding me hostage in fight-or-flight mode. For days that turned into weeks, I could hardly eat or sleep, and I felt shaky, weak and nauseated, sometimes to the point of throwing up. After my doctor ruled out anything medically concerning, I brought it up to my therapist.

“It sounds like you were really triggered by what you saw,” she told me. “Do you think your reaction is connected to something deeper, like a memory of your mom?”

A decade before the flight, I had found my mom, who struggled with addiction to painkillers, passed out in her bedroom — another panic-provoking emergency. To help me process my memories of the flight and my mom, as well as the connection between them, my therapist suggested a type of therapy called eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, or EMDR.

According to the EMDR Institute, this therapy was introduced in 1987 to help trauma survivors process and reframe traumatic memories in a safe environment. Since then, research has shown EMDR to be an effective treatment for emotional trauma: In one 2014 study, nearly 90 percent of single-trauma victims reported a total abatement of PTSD symptoms after three 90-minute EMDR sessions. There’s also clinical evidence that EMDR is helpful for substance use disorders, generalized anxiety and phobias.

The therapy employs bilateral stimulation, a technique where patients engage in rhythmic eye movements or sensory stimulation. Different types of bilateral stimulation require patients to follow a therapist’s finger from side to side or hold buzzers emitting alternating vibrations.

Francine Shapiro, the creator of EMDR, theorizes that bilateral stimulation works by moving a traumatic event into a new memory network in the brain. The idea is that trauma is initially associated with whatever distressing emotions, thoughts and images are present when it occurs. If a survivor doesn’t process the trauma, subsequent triggering situations may give rise to those same distressing emotions, which can dictate their reactions, like the plane incident did for me. EMDR helps the survivor link their trauma to new, non-distressing emotions.

Given my history with trauma and anxiety surrounding my mom’s addiction, I had thought about trying EMDR before. But I’d never taken the plunge, unsure of how it worked and skeptical it worked at all. Plus, my therapist didn’t practice EMDR, so she had to refer me elsewhere. Luckily, as the EMDR Institute told me via email, there are more than 4,300 EMDR-certified therapists in the U.S., and 130 of them practice within 25 miles of my house.

When I showed up at my first EMDR session last May, I wasn’t sure I still needed the therapy. By that point, I no longer felt weak or sick, and I was sleeping again, so I assumed I’d processed the plane memory. EMDR proved me wrong.

At my therapist’s suggestion, we kicked off treatment by revisiting my trigger, the memory of the plane. She handed me a set of buzzers that emitted gentle vibrations in each hand, back and forth, without any change in intensity or duration. As instructed, I thought about the woman passing out on the plane while gripping the buzzers. Within a few minutes, my body had a visceral reaction: My heart began to race and my breaths grew fast and shallow. It was like being back on the plane, even though I knew I was just sitting on the sturdy, maroon couch in my therapist’s office. I heard the shrill howl for help in my mind, but I also heard the sound of my own breathing and felt the rhythmic buzzing in my hands. I was scared, but I was also safe.

“If you think of the new memory as a puddle of burning gasoline, that memory will continue to burn as long as streams of gasoline are feeding it.”

While my first EMDR session dealt with revisiting the memory that triggered me, subsequent sessions involved unlocking older memories my therapist believed were connected to the trigger. Each session — one per week for seven consecutive weeks — we went deeper into my trauma, recalling feelings, sensations and beliefs associated with individual memories while I held the buzzers in my palms.

The only way to disable a trigger is to revisit the memories keeping it intact, according to Nancy Smythe, an EMDR-certified therapist and a dean and professor at the School of Social Work at the State University of New York at Buffalo. For me, those memories centered around my mom’s addiction and my role as her caregiver, bringing her to the hospital during withdrawal periods.

“If you think of the new memory as a puddle of burning gasoline, that memory will continue to burn as long as streams of gasoline are feeding it,” Smyth said; in this scenario, older memories can act like gasoline.

More than anything, my experience with EMDR has reminded me to listen to signals from my body and mind, which Smythe considers among the most therapeutically valuable aspects of EMDR. “The brain and body follow natural associational linkages to get all the corners cleared out,” she said. “What EMDR has given me over the years is a profound respect for our body and mind’s ability to show us what needs to happen, to take us where we need to go and where we’re ready to go.”

Though studies show EMDR to be effective, there are mixed theories as to why and how the technique works to, as my therapist put it, “metabolize stuck memories.”

“We think that it’s something about the stimulation and activating a memory where we’re thinking about the old situation at the same time as we’re fully present in an office with a trusted therapist,” Smythe said. “Allowing our whole brain to become engaged and mindful can allow the blocks, the stuck points of the emotional digestion, to get unstuck.”

EMDR isn’t the only effective way to process traumatic memories, but it has advantages over popular alternatives. A method called trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy appears to work similarly well, but it involves homework and repeated, extended exposure to disturbing memories. EMDR is more intuitive and less therapist-directed; patients only revisit the traumatic memories they feel ready to face. For me, the entire process was fluid. If I didn’t feel like I made progress after revisiting the plane memory, I could have opted to stay there for several sessions, until it felt less emotionally charged.

Now, seven sessions later, I feel calmer and more secure. Thinking about that plane ride still conjures an unpleasant memory, but it doesn’t haunt me or keep me up at night. It’s just another memory, alongside many others.

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