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Rewriting Relationship Scripts with EMDR: A Path to Intimacy and Healing

Updated: Jun 6

Have you heard of EMDR - Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing technique? Let me tell you a bit about what I know about it from my training and practice. Its effects are astonishing and can genuinely promote well-being, emotional processing and growth.

Many of my clients come to me after having previous experiences with psychologists or therapies. What I often hear from them is that they already understand the origins of their problems, they have created a coherent narrative about their issues, and cognitively, they know how they should behave and what they should change. However, at an emotional level, their problems persist. They express that even though they KNOW where their problems come from, they still FEEL the same way. They observe that their emotional reactions remain unchanged and continue to bother them.

Moreover, some of my clients find this even more distressing than before therapy because they are highly uncomfortable with the dissonance between what they know they should be doing and what they actually feel drawn to do. Some individuals reach a point where they abandon therapy altogether and prefer to explore more experimental, unproven methods such as psychedelics or breathwork. I am not opposed to these methods, as long as they are approached responsibly, but I am also stating that EMDR is a safer and faster alternative with a wealth of scientific evidence demonstrating its effectiveness. EMDR can truly address the emotional processing component that is often missing from the therapeutic journey of many of my clients.

Imagine noticing yourself freezing up in a conflict. You may have already addressed this problem in other therapies, comprehending that this reaction signifies distress and understanding its origins in your personal history. However, you still find yourself freezing up, causing problems in your life. Your reaction continues to impact your partner and strains your relationship. It can be incredibly frustrating, right? A freeze reaction is deeply ingrained in our nervous systems. It is a self-protective mechanism designed to shield us from harm, so it is highly effective. The initial experience that imprinted this reaction must have been very threatening, occurring either when you were very young, during a dangerous situation, or possibly both. While understanding and insight into the origins of this reaction can be helpful, wouldn't it be wonderful to have the ability to simply stop freezing up? The challenge with talk therapies for issues like this is that the parts of the brain activated during "just talking" are different from the ones responsible for this reaction. Talking primarily engages the cortex, while freeze reactions predominantly reside in the amygdala. So, what do we need to do to unlearn this reaction? We must activate different parts of the brain and compel it to process the reaction differently. This is where EMDR comes into play.

In a session, we begin by discussing your reaction to bring it forth as vividly as possible while you are in the same room with your psychologist or during an online session. While you have access to your freeze reaction, your psychologist starts waving their fingers in front of your eyes, moving them left and right. You follow the movement with your eyes while focusing on your body. In an online session, you follow dots on the screen. This process is done in sets of 30 seconds and repeated for half an hour or more. This is the stage where the magic happens. As an observer, it feels like a privilege and a glimpse into someone's brain to witness how people process their reactions and experiences. For some individuals, the process evokes intense emotions, leading to intense crying, anger, or an emotional roller coaster. For others, the experience is milder but brings immediate relief and joy through newfound insight. Often, it turns out that the explanations for the origins of the reaction gained in previous therapy were simply inaccurate, and the client gains access to the actual origin, which proves to be helpful.

What is also amazing is that as a psychologist, I do not have significant influence over what happens during the EMDR process. I have control and provide safety, but I do not suggest any explanations or interpretations. This approach feels highly ethical because it puts you, the client, in charge. I find it wonderful to witness people dealing with their problems in their own way. The results are often spectacular, as emotional reactions change with minimal effort on the part of the client. It happens automatically. However, it's important to note that achieving these results may require more than just one session, especially if the original trauma is stronger, repeated, or more complex. But the time invested is definitely worth it.

Although EMDR was originally developed for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and most studies have focused on its efficacy for this disorder and simple phobias, in my experience, it has many more applications if psychologists are open to applying it with greater flexibility. The biggest challenge for me when implementing EMDR is to trust the process and refrain from intervening, helping, engaging, or suggesting anything. I simply allow the client to engage in their own processing. This requires a significant amount of self-restraint, but the rewarding results make it worthwhile.

In summary, EMDR is a highly effective technique that assists in unlearning unfavourable distress reactions, such as fight, flight, or freeze responses. It promotes emotional processing on a level that leads to actual changes in emotional reactions. It has the potential to transform patterns of emotional reactions in highly triggering situations, turning them into neutral experiences for the client. Consequently, it frees up psychological resources, allowing for clearer thinking, increased calmness, and intentional actions. In general, you may benefit from EMDR if you notice that some of your reactions are automatic and challenging to control, if you experience high levels of triggering in certain situations, or if you struggle with strong surges of anxiety, simple or complex phobias, or adverse stress reactions.

One of my favourite applications of EMDR is in the context of relationships. I utilize it in couples counselling and when working with individuals who are seeking romantic connections. Relationships and the intimacy they entail can be highly triggering situations in life. Automatic stress reactions in these contexts can be extremely detrimental to relationships and hinder your ability to form meaningful connections. EMDR can truly help you respond appropriately to the present moment, without transferring past traumas onto your current situation. As a result, you can act and feel with greater intention and calmness, staying true to your values and becoming the best version of yourself for your partner(s).

Interested? Contact me for a face to face session in Amsterdam or an online session.

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