Interested in EMDR therapy — but not sure what’s involved? Read one man’s story of how it changed his life after trauma…
Former rugby player ‘Jonathan’ had a full time job and busy social life. But after suffering a traumatic event, his mental health began to suffer. It was only when a friend recommended EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprocessing) therapy that he began to find a way through it all. Here is his story, in his own words:
‘A few years ago, I was the victim of an unprovoked attack in my hometown. I was left badly injured and due to the mental trauma of it all, developed a deep depression. I also started experiencing vivid flashbacks, panic attacks and anxiety. This affected many areas of my life, for instance I couldn’t sleep and didn’t even want to leave the house. And when I returned to work, I found it difficult to concentrate. In order to cope with it all I started drinking in excess and using recreational drugs.
Although I went to my GP for support shortly after the attack, the process was slow and I had to wait eight months before getting my first counselling appointment. Also, the therapist I saw used a CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) approach that wasn’t trauma-focused, meaning I got very little relief from my symptoms. Thankfully, I’m lucky enough to have a friend who is a clinical psychologist. They assessed my symptoms and recommended seeking out an EMDR therapist who could offer trauma-based counselling.
I started looking online but it was a bit daunting at first, as things like qualifications and accreditations were new to me. I took my time choosing a therapist and decided I would be more comfortable speaking to a male with significant experience in trauma and drug misuse. I emailed a few individuals with a list of questions and picked one based on their response. I liked how he listened and communicated. I had been nervous and a little skeptical as this was new to me, but in the end I felt reassured and confident that I could work with him.
Before our first session, I felt a whole mixture of emotions — I was both nervous and optimistic, yet there was also a large part of me that felt ashamed and weak. I am an ex-rugby player and up until then had always been the life and soul of the party. I’m also quite a proud person, so it was hard to accept that I was going to therapy. Yet at the same time I was fully aware that I needed help as my symptoms were worsening and the coping mechanisms were just causing further damage.
After several sessions, I started to get used to the EMDR process. I got more at ease with sharing everything I was suppressing and finding ways to combat the symptoms. In fact, I actually started noticing changes after two sessions. Then after a few more weeks we began to properly ‘process’ the trauma itself, which really started to move things forward significantly. I felt drained after each appointment but it was worth it as I was sleeping better and having less racing thoughts.
Initially, I visited my therapist in person but when the pandemic started we moved onto online meetings. And actually this was just as effective — if anything, I felt more at ease being able to do EMDR in the comfort of my own home.
I’ve had many breakthroughs throughout therapy and while some were immediate and big, others were more subtle. For instance, I’d notice changes to my thought patterns during the week or would arrive at realisations about myself which I’d discuss with my therapist at the next session. I also began to feel safer around people and was able to start rebuilding my life as a result. And the biggest breakthrough of all was being able to return to the place where the attack happened.
Although ultimately I went into therapy to deal with the attack, in the end I actually uncovered so much more about myself in the process. In fact, the majority of the work we ended up doing was on my attachment and abandonment issues. My childhood was quite difficult and traumatic and I now understand that the attack actually caused these earlier traumas to surface.
Therapy uncovered things for me that I didn't expect, for instance, the importance of relationships in my life and the damage that toxic ones can have. It took time for me to accept these things, yet I also learned that they had contributed to my trauma symptoms.
I come from a family dynamic where you had to shout or scream to be heard, but in therapy it’s the complete opposite. Therapy felt odd at first because I wasn’t judged or criticised, I had time and space to really express things without being devalued and disregarded. I was also someone who knew how to soothe others but not myself, so it took me a while to feel comfortable opening up about my feelings.
Before I started EMDR, I found that my support network wasn’t equipped to help me as they couldn’t relate to what I had gone through. So being able to express your emotions to a person who doesn’t judge or devalue what you’re saying has huge positives. It’s crucial to have someone who will listen to things you may not feel comfortable sharing with friends or family and have the tools to support you when you need it most.
Essentially, EMDR takes the ‘charge’ out of upsetting experiences, making your feelings about them much more manageable. It’s an intense process where you have to face things head on, but it has changed my life in so many ways. Overall, EMDR helps you to let go of negative thought patterns, giving you more awareness of how they make you feel and act.
This treatment has brought up things that I hadn’t fully acknowledged or faced, things I hadn’t even realised were issues. However, after processing them the realisation and relief I felt is hard to put into words. It is like being given brakes for your thinking, allowing you time to reason with yourself before reacting.
Therapy is important in many ways but for me, it boils down to two key things. Firstly, it’s about learning to trust again — in both the process and in the therapist. Secondly, it’s about learning not to be afraid to express emotions. That can include crying, taking a walk, talking things through with close friends or journaling thoughts and feelings. Meditation, breathing exercises and working out have also all played a part in my recovery.
I can honestly say that starting therapy was a lifesaving intervention. It isn’t easy as you do have to revisit upsetting memories and experiences, but my therapist gave me the space to process those emotions. I’ve learned how to deal with things more effectively and am now moving forward with my life. I actually think that therapy is the best investment I could have made for myself.
Since having therapy, I’ve gained a deeper understanding of myself, including my likes, dislikes, strengths and weaknesses. I was in a dark place before, but working through it has helped me to grow and rebuild my life.
And it’s not over, as I’m still on my therapy journey. I only wish I’d started it sooner as I can see that my fears about how people would react were silly, to say the least. Nowadays, I’m proud of the hard work I have put in and the progress I’ve made — I feel more in control of my life and better equipped to deal with challenging situations.
I would say to anyone thinking of starting therapy that there is no shame in getting help — in fact, this is actually a process that you can take pride in. It’s better to get support for your issues than let them affect your relationships with others. Just do it and give it your all because in the end, you can’t deal with your challenges if you don’t talk about them.
Don’t get me wrong, therapy can be tough at times — I cried and cried then had waves of anger, resentment and disbelief. However, when you work through it all those symptoms subside and you start to see results. And that is an incredible and liberating experience. This has been a life-changing process for me, so I would urge anyone who is struggling to explore this therapy.’
EMDR is an increasingly popular online and in-person trauma therapy. Your therapist will lead you safely back into a difficult memory, inviting you to notice what comes up while you simultaneously pay attention to a moving object, hand taps or sound tones. In this way your brain can process the experience and come to terms with it, so that it no longer impacts you in the same way. It is a powerful approach for issues such as trauma, PTSD, C-PTSD, phobias, addiction, depression, anger, anxiety and more. Here is a fascinating interview with the founder of EMDR, Francine Shapiro.
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