Posts Tagged ‘emdr’

Getting Stuck in Trauma

Something that EMDR really revealed to me as an important concept is how we get stuck in traumatic memories. Under stress the brain neurons get gnarled up in a clump and the memory becomes physically frozen. When we play the memory, the story gets stuck at the most critical moments and we essentially only see that moment as the story. This would be the moment the tiger attacked and how we defended ourselves. A modern analogy would be surviving a terrible car accident and continually remembering crawling out the window. We assign great meaning to these moments because it defines our survival.

When I was processing my assault, the therapist and I went from the most stressful memory which was that of facing the attacker at the moment I thought I might die. When we were finally able to punch through the emotions and show the brain the entire story, frame by frame, did we reduce the intensity of the entire memory. Each frame presented different feelings and emotions that weren’t weighed into the final story. I learned things about the incident I “forgot” like I had more control of the situation than I realized and that I had made intentional decisions. The tiger attacked and I defended more deftly than imagined.

Eventually I realized I wasn’t a hostage of the situation and now the memory. I don’t think “cure” is the right word for EMDR processing but treatment is certainly it. I’d liken it to cleaning the wound and letting it heal on its own. Too bad it takes so long!

Lately I’ve been struck by certain memories or triggers, very specific snippets in time that seem to represent something greater. With a recent panic attack I was again presented with the distressing idea of reaching out to someone on the sidewalk to “help” me in my crisis. I thought I was just embarrassed by talking to people, as if shyness was the trauma. This didn’t seem to stick, so I “advanced the scene” frame by frame and asked what it would look like if I had talked to someone and how I would feel at each transition in the theoretical exchange.

I did not exactly arrive at an ah-ha moment, but I realized that there was something there about admitting guilt about my panic attack. I think this feeling has something to do with being closeted in the past and also juggling an alcoholic parent. Who could I tell about these deep dark secrets? Maybe I haven’t quite processed out these early defining feelings, certainly my earliest anxieties. One clue leads to another, which is at least a better situation than being stuck.

How COVID Tipped My Mental Health Over the Edge

The news of 1 in 5 people being diagnosed with a mental disorder after testing positive for COVID-19 really shouldn’t be shocking. Disease itself is a traumatic event for anyone. Broken legs and flus are easily stored memories by your mind so that you may try to avoid them in the future. But having a precise event that caused your mental health condition is a blessing compared to those of us who have been unraveling mysterious old demons for years. Hopefully many will never see COVID in their lives but we are all living the effects of it whether we have it or not. Lockdowns, masks, avoidance, fear of others, it is all adding up day-to-day and I fear many will reach a breaking point as I did.

The first feeling I remember back in February to March was basically denial. I sensed that things could get out of control but my logical self reasoned that our highly advanced country would contain any spread. I remember weeks of coverage around Ebola, a really seriously infectious deadly disease, and how everyone thought it was overblown in the media. My mind comforted itself in past experience. How I was wrong.

Once it was clear a lockdown was going to happen and the shelves started emptying, my reactions went on autopilot. Every time I walked into a grocery store, I felt fight or flight kick in with goosebumps and sweating. Everything and everyone was deadly. It was a serious disease we wanted to stop and I accepted this situation. I didn’t realize how this fear of everything was quietly reactivating along a deeper anxiety.

Certainly when we’re children we learn to overcome fear and find assurance from our parents. My childhood was different, marked by alcoholism and family politics. Weekly reminders of chaos in the seeming normalcy of suburban life. With the COVID lockdown, suddenly chaos was every day, morning and night. I laid awake at night listening to pop music from the 90s, not realizing my soul was reminding me of the last time I experienced turmoil.

The feedback cycle intensified as the months went on. I was gripped in a cycle of fear and loathing of the situation. Even though from the outside all I was doing was living comfortably in a large apartment with access to any take-out cuisine in a foodie city, I was reeling inside. My constant checking of social media was hurtful and harmful and yet I continued to do so believing I needed the information to protect myself. My emergency-only Ativan pills became merely bandages to the next day.

I basically mapped my dysfunctional childhood into my adult life without realizing it.

The panic attacks started on a steady drum. First monthly, I blew them off. Then weekly, I thought I could handle it by buying anxiety workbooks and scheduling more calls with a therapist. Before I knew it, it was daily. Hypochondria was my usual go-to and so I thought this was actually a heart condition. Frantic messages to my Doctor came back with reassurances that all was fine. My therapist offered that I had the power to control the situation with CBT techniques.

During this time, I engaged my friends on a near daily basis. Zoom calls were terribly stressful sessions recounting our woes. They helped and yet offered no hope. Everyone was in the same boat, but only I had the power to change my situation. I wasn’t able to get real help or intervention from anyone.

Come June, lockdown lifted. I thought I had the situation under control even though literally a day wouldn’t go by without my body automatically flying off the handle. I gave myself a vacation week for July 4th weekend. But instead of proceeding to rent a car and drive out to the beach on the first day, I had my biggest panic attack of all during a supposedly relaxing run. I felt some pain and thought I was about to die on the sidewalk from a heart attack. Nearby a construction crew looked on oddly.

For the remaining “vacation” I was reeling between reality and unreality. I Googled everything under the sun to find a cause for the pain. Finally on a quiet Sunday night where I had essentially trained my body to prepare for anything, and feeling the claustrophobia of my four walls as night set in, I had a rolling panic attack that resulted in calling 911.

At a bit after midnight, in hospital ready clothes, I was sitting on the cold floor of my apartment lobby with the phone to my head (the waiting room furniture had been removed for COVID). Thankfully, the triage nurse on the other line knew what was up and instead of sending an ambulance, kept me on for a bit, asking a rotating group of questions of whether I was “in pain now” or how I felt. It talked me down and with a reassuring voice that touched me deep down she said “you sound fine.” It broke the spell. I went for a long walk outside after I felt like I had just sobered up from a true reality break.

The next day I reached out to a neurofeedback specialist I had been talking to before COVID set in. The nurse on the phone opened a window of clarity for me and allowed me to realize what had been going on. I knew I needed to take drastic action or I would relapse again and end up in a psych ward.

I’m grateful the story of a broken, lost me ends there for now. You can read more about my journey through EMDR and neurofeedback on this blog. For me, COVID was the catalyst that blew things up but also forced me to immediately confront everything and get the right help. I encourage everyone to find your path to healing. You’ll never know when the world changes on a dime.

https://www.npr.org/sections/coronavirus-live-updates/2020/11/11/933964994/after-covid-diagnosis-nearly-1-in-5-are-diagnosed-with-mental-disorder

Curing My Soul with EMDR

I can’t even begin to describe what has happened to me in just the past few months. The stress of Covid, lockdowns, social isolation, and being stuck in a place I didn’t quite desire culminated in daily panic attacks. Certainly I always had a high baseline of generalized anxiety, but I knew something was different deep down. The thought of Covid floating all around me, entrapping me in a dimly lit apartment brought me back to two critical incidents in my life: my near-death experience on a surgical table ten years ago, and a sexual assault three years ago.

Friends did their best to initially intervene, from a simple hour in a park, to taking me out to eat in precarious indoor seating situations. I always returned home with fear and separation anxiety. Daily walks and exercise only helped exacerbate the symptoms because I wasn’t ready to face this. Nights wore on me, moments with my heart racing as if the assault was happening all over again as I sat calmly on my couch.

The scales had tipped. I realized something was wrong and if I didn’t take action I would end up in a hospital, the kind you don’t want to be in.

Fortunately I had already reached out to this Neurofeedback specialist last year, but I didn’t go through with it due to high session cost. At the time, I thought I could just wait until I felt unburdened from work to begin. Well, the world moved fast.

We connected fast and after the first conversation we hit the ground running with two sessions a week. I almost felt like I needed three. I was living literally to the edge of each day, as if waiting for the day light of the next.

We started with EMDR because so many active memories and thoughts presented road blocks and conflicts to simple Neurofeedback training. I wasn’t like myself in late 2019, I was in a high fight or flight state.

EMDR was a sledgehammer that smashed through everything right to the core of my being. I felt a laser beam to my amygdala, awakening it to tell us what it stored, what it saw from that scary night, and from all the fearful nights before it. A little bit of a child, a teenager, a young adult, all their experiences coming together to inform and shape the narrative that struck me three years ago.

Nothing really made sense even though it made perfect sense. Why would the child’s screaming parents relate to the frozen man on a stranger’s bed. The magical part of EMDR, is that the pieces do not even need to have any logic or truth, it is just the medium of the English language that we describe how the body has kept the score. Concepts like assault are meaningless to the body, the body only knows what it has seen.

I saw truly how EMDR was so powerful in immediately forcing the body, the mind, the nervous system, to come to terms with what it locked away. My two years spent meticulously crafting CBT defensive logic and coping skills had evaporated in a series of months. I knew then that CBT could have never addressed the “real problem.” It was too complex, too many fingers in different memories, too many triggers to be resolved in an easy breathing exercise or a dysfunctional thoughts log.

After about ten sessions and several follow-ups to tie loose ends, I felt completely absolved of the misery that had plagued me deep down all these years. I couldn’t believe that I had not done this sooner. I felt cheated, robbed, years of my life taken both from the original incident and from not knowing what to do about it. So many relationships and interactions that could have gone better, ruined by a broken mind.

With neurofeedback, we’re now reinforcing those revelations and clearings by finally asking the brain to change. EMDR can be sufficient to let the mind heal over time but I knew that just as easily I could relapse. I wanted complete healing now. I finally know what it’s like to just sit and just be, to be conscientious of others deep down. I can shift my fears, re-assure myself, and for once my body will respond. Not all days are bliss but for the first time my soul feels at peace.