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My Journey to Recovery Through EMDR Therapy

Managing Depression

December 09, 2022

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Photography by Tetiana Strilchuk/EyeEm/Getty Images

Photography by Tetiana Strilchuk/EyeEm/Getty Images

by Maya Capasso

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Bethany Juby, PsyD

Medically Reviewed

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•••••

by Maya Capasso

•••••

Bethany Juby, PsyD

Medically Reviewed

•••••

•••••

When talking isn’t the best way for you to process your emotions or experiences, EMDR therapy might be a good option. I was surprised by how fast this alternative method helped me heal.

In October 2021, I was ready to change my approach to therapy. I had just completed treatment in a psychiatric hospital and went home to continue my regular treatment. I saw a talk therapist once a week before I went to the hospital, but it started to feel like we had reached a standstill.

Whenever my therapist asked me about difficult emotions or events from my past, I would freeze up. My mind would empty.

I could not physically answer her questions because my mind would prevent me from thinking.

It was frustrating and confusing. I desperately wanted to process my past traumas, but my brain wouldn’t let me talk about them.

That’s when my therapist told me about EMDR. Short for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, EMDR is a type of psychotherapy designed to help people process and heal painful emotions and other current symptoms from past traumatic events.

EMDR appealed to me because it does not require the participant to talk about painful emotions or experiences. Instead, it is primarily an internal process that a therapist monitors.

Before I learned about EMDR, I had no idea I could heal from trauma without talking about it.

I want to share my EMDR experience with you because I believe EMDR is a fantastic therapeutic healing tool for those looking to process painful events from their past. It allowed me to heal when traditional talk therapy was not accessible to me.

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Does EMDR really work?

Research suggests that EMDR is an effective tool for treating trauma-related distress.

A 2014 study that assessed EMDR research conducted since 1987 found that EMDR may be more effective and more fast-acting than trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).

EMDR isn’t only used to treat PTSD. Research in 2015 suggests it shows promise as a treatment for depression — 68% of patients who received EMDR were in full remission at the end of the small study.

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What exactly is EMDR?

EMDR is a type of psychotherapy that is split into eight phases. Let’s break it down.

Phase 1: History taking

The first phase is to review relevant personal history. In my case, my traditional talk therapist and my new EMDR therapist met to discuss my history.

Since I have such a tough time opening up verbally about what I’ve been through, this was the best option for me.

Phase 2: Regulating emotional distress

During the second phase, the therapist teaches the patient emotional coping skills to use when distress gets high during processing.

My EMDR therapist told me to imagine a large box made of a strong material with many drawers inside. Each drawer contains a traumatic memory. At the beginning of each session, I’d take the key and unlock the box, then open the drawer of the particular memory I was processing that session.

Once the session was over, I’d put the memory back in the drawer, close and lock the drawer, and then close and lock the box. This exercise taught me that I’m in control of my memories and can choose when I want to remember them and when I don’t.

My therapist also taught me to imagine a safe place to visit inside my head when processing got emotionally overwhelming. My safe space is a beautiful garden with a lovely pond and a tall tree I can climb. It leads into a library with a fluffy orange cat lazing on a cushy couch. Going there mentally helps me ground myself.

Phases 3 to 6: Reprocessing

Phases three through six are the meat of the session. That’s where the processing takes place.

First, you and your therapist choose a memory to focus on. Then, your therapist will ask you to rate your level of distress when you think of the past event. You also identify a belief about yourself as a result of the event.

Then it’s time to process the memory. This is where the “eye movement” part of EMDR comes into play.

As the patient focuses on the thoughts, images, emotions, and body sensations resulting from the traumatic memory, they also must focus on an external stimulus. Some therapists ask their patients to look back and forth quickly using moving lights as a guide. Others use tapping or vibrations.

The purpose is to engage in dual tasks, which researchers believe allows the brain to reprocess and integrate memories.

During this process, the therapist pays attention to the patient’s progress. During my sessions, my therapist would interrupt me every 10 minutes or so to check on how I was doing. At the end of this portion of the session, the therapist asks the patient to rate their level of distress again. The goal is to bring that number down to zero.

To make sure any disturbance has passed, the therapist also completes a body scan for any tenseness that might need to be cleared through more eye movements.

Phase 7: In between sessions

Phase seven begins at the end of the session when the therapist asks the patient to keep a journal between sessions.

I always sat down right after the session and reflected on what I processed. If any symptoms or difficult memories popped up over the week, I’d jot that down to bring into our next session.

Phase 8: Progress examination

Lastly, phase eight comes into play at the beginning of the next session. That’s when the therapist checks in to see how the patient is doing with the process before starting up again.

How EMDR helped me

I was in EMDR therapy for 2 months after leaving the hospital, and it changed my life. Not only did it help me overcome symptoms of my PTSD, but it also drastically decreased symptoms of my depression.

And I felt the results after each session.

I’ve never had a treatment feel so fast-acting as EMDR. I left each session exhausted but full of hope.

Here are the three most significant ways EMDR helped heal my depression:

Decreased rumination

Rumination is something many people with depression struggle to control. When you ruminate, you’re repeatedly thinking about something painful from the past. It prevents you from focusing on your life in the present.

By processing trauma from my past, I could stop focusing so much on past mistakes and instead focus on my life today. When I was constantly ruminating, I had no space to dream for the future. Once I started EMDR, I began feeling hopeful again.

Decreased intrusive suicidal thoughts

Many people with depression experience suicidal thoughts and ideation. When my emotions get overwhelming, my brain often tends to go straight to “I want to die.”

EMDR helped me regulate difficult emotions that came up with traumatic memories. As I processed the memories, the pain became more bearable.

Increased motivation

One of the biggest challenges I face with my depression is finding motivation. Before going to the hospital, I had trouble getting up and out of bed because everything felt pointless and nothing brought me joy.

Processing painful events from my past helped me gain back my energy.

Before I processed my trauma, I was so focused on ruminating about the past and coping with terrifying thoughts and feelings that I had nothing left to give to the world. It sapped my energy. Once I could process my trauma, I regained some energy and motivation.

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Takeaways

If you’re living with depression that’s linked to troubles with your past, you may consider looking into EMDR as a treatment option.

EMDR therapy helped me overcome symptoms of my depression, and it may help you, too.

I hope that by breaking down the process of what goes on during an EMDR session and explaining how it benefited me, I can help others find a pathway for healing that works for them.

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About the author

Maya Capasso

Maya (she/they) is a professional freelance writer and cold pitch coach. Her writing is featured in TransLash News & Narrative, HorrorPress, the Episodes Newsletter, and more. They’re passionate about mental health advocacy and social justice. She manages the Accessible Cold Pitch blog and email newsletter to help freelancers connect with their ideal clients. You can follow her on Twitter or Instagram.

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