Recovering from the Holidays with EMDR
by Constance Wilkinson
Sure, we all love the ho-ho-ho-holidays. Even though we know we may be triggered by them, we go charging straight into them anyway, replete with festive food, festive lights, shiny wrapping paper and decorations, bright lights, chocolates and all, hoping for the best, fearing the worst… and winding up afterward with a mildly traumatic smattering of both.
What else can we do?
We can prepare for the usual roundup of holiday stressors by making a plan of action before anything happens, or we can just let whatever happens, happen, sort of Zen-like, and deal with it after the holidays are done. Certainly by New Year's, whatever could happen has happened, and we are left to deal with the end of year detritus. We move on and make our New Year's resolutions.
But what will those be?
Sometimes the road forward begins with a road back, taking the road less traveled, as poet Robert Frost said, and that making all the difference.
This time of year is a time for reflection, and for making changes grounded on what we let ourselves notice, letting one part of ourselves notice some things that another part of us might really rather not see.
Everyone experiences painful events throughout their lifetimes; everyone experiences trauma of some flavor or some duration or some depth. This is the nature of the human experience. It is normal; it is unavoidable.
We are all subject to birth, old age, illness, death; we are all subject to impermanence; we all suffer. We cannot choose our painful experiences, but we can choose our response. Often, the best response is to allow ourselves to choose awareness, and from that, to choose to take action.
One way of choosing to cope with painful experiences is working with those experiences through a method of therapy called EMDR.
EMDR is an unusual and effective treatment for symptoms of PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder. Unusual in that, like aspirin, while we know that it does work, we don't really know how that happens.
It is also unusual in that, unlike talk therapy, the method requires certain specific kinds of brain stimulation: bilateral tapping, bilateral eye movements, alternating sounds.
Effective in that it works to relieve severity and frequency of PTSD symptoms: flashbacks, numbing/avoidance, and hyperarousal (such as hypervigilance, anxiety, panic, irritability, angry outbursts.)
I first heard about EMDR when I was in graduate school, studying clinical counseling psychology at Lesley University. One of my colleagues told his story of recovering from a traumatic event, the suicide of a friend, by seeing a therapist who used EMDR. He called it "the finger waggle."
He said it was amazing how something so peculiar as using his eyes to follow the fingers of his therapist, as she moved them from side to side, could actually provide a sense of emotional relief from an event that had bothered him for many years. But it did.
This intrigued me, so I signed up to take the next two-day EMDR Institute training in Cambridge, organized by Francine Shapiro, Ph.D., who developed the EMDR technique in 1987. On the first day, the EMDR trainer outlined the protocol for the technique.
Later, we therapists split up into pairs and practiced on each other. To do this, we needed to identify a minor traumatic event we wanted to work on. I found that part all too easy. Besides being in graduate school, I was also working at a residential school where the young patients often became violent toward the staff: screaming, kicking, spitting, punching, and tantruming.
For more information about EMDR visit
Constance Wilkinson, LMHC, MFA
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