Healing from Complex PTSD: My Experience with EMDR Therapy.
In this blog, I explore my experience with EMDR therapy and share some of the insights I’ve gained along the way.
Writing about mental health and trauma isn’t easy. It’s not easy to talk about, read about, or experience. But I think it’s important to help break down the stigma of “abnormal” psychological experiences because every human life is unique, and the truth is that there is no “normal” psychological experience. I hope that by writing about some of the things I have experienced, I can help break down the collective barriers we have to mental health and mental illness, and provide support and information to others going through a similar experience.
My aim in this blog is to be open and truthful. Although it may be easier, I don’t think it’s helpful to wash over difficult topics to make them more palatable. At the same time, I’m not ready to openly share my trauma with the world, so the focus of this article will be to explore the symptoms of trauma (PTSD / complex PTSD) and recovery from those symptoms through EMDR therapy.
If you aren’t ready or don’t want to read about trauma and mental illness, then that’s ok – you don’t have to read on. This blog is for anyone who wants to read an honest account of what it’s like to heal and process trauma in EMDR therapy.
1. Why I began EMDR therapy
My mental health journey was a long and confusing road towards rediscovering a traumatic experience so deeply suppressed that I managed to live 15 years of my 24-year-old life with absolutely no memory of it happening.
After a few years of counseling, psychotherapy and CBT therapy, and after I had built a safe home with my partner, suppressed memories began to resurface. The memories had already begun to show themselves previously through mental and physical symptoms – physically through my skin as acne, and mentally through symptoms such as anxiety, chronic shame, depression, panic attacks, and intrusive and suicidal thoughts. For a few years, I had no idea what was going on – I took a year out of university when things became severe and I was no longer functioning. Yet still, the trauma hadn’t fully resurfaced in the form of explicit memories.
At first, I thought I was ‘going mad’ or having some kind of serious mental breakdown. Things were really bad. As I said, after a few years of therapy, traumatic memories slowly began to resurface. First as triggers – I would have panic attacks, dissociation, and very strong emotional reactions to anything that was suggestive of the trauma. During this time, whilst I was constantly getting triggered, I was trying to look for some connection or meaning in the things that I was getting triggered by. It seemed like almost anything would make me have an attack of dissociation and distress.
And then, one day, a documentary came on TV about the trauma I had experienced. My reaction was so overwhelming, and so obviously triggered by the content of the documentary, that deep down I knew this was it.
To begin with, I wasn’t ready to accept that this was the cause of my suffering – I had no memory of anything like this ever happening. It was just a coincidence, I told myself. But then, once again, a comedian on a stand-up comedy show was making jokes in relation to the trauma. I broke down. I felt dizzy and sick. Over time, after reacting again and again to this particular traumatic experience on the TV and radio, I began to believe that this was the cause.
The more I was triggered, the more flashbacks I began having. At first, they were really hazy and unclear – more physical and dissociative than any clear picture of what had happened.
Anyway, fast forward to 2021 and I was in CBT therapy. I found a therapist who I was really comfortable with and who I felt understood me. I’d been having flashbacks and putting the pieces of the puzzle together, slowly remembering what had happened to me. At this point, I was having flashbacks to not only what had happened but to who was the perpetrator. I told my therapist what I thought had happened to me and I completely went to pieces. I remember it well – I had the strangest and most all-consuming sensation, like the weight of an elephant has been lifted from my chest.
My CBT therapist recommended, after a few sessions of visualising my childhood, that perhaps EMDR therapy would be a helpful and essentially less painful way of processing the trauma. After a year off from therapy (I was pretty exhausted at this point, and not quite ready for the processing stage), I moved to Manchester with my partner and began EMDR.
2. What has happened in EMDR therapy?
PTSD and complex PTSD are characterised by reliving or re-experiencing trauma –when the mind cannot process an extremely painful or distressing experience, that experience becomes “stuck”, manifesting itself as mental, emotional, and physical symptoms.
The purpose of EMDR (eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing) is to process the trauma, so that it isn’t relived and re-experienced as deeply distressing, but becomes integrated within the person’s life as an experience that happened in the past but importantly is now over.
To answer the question ‘What has happened in EMDR therapy?’ I would say that the trauma has been processed. What does this mean? Well, living with complex PTSD has meant an ongoing experience of feeling like something is ‘stuck’. You feel ‘stuck’ in your life, ‘stuck’ in your body, ‘stuck’ in a never-ending cycle of sickness, flashbacks, dread, and dissociation. Your whole mind and body is consumed by all the emotions you felt in the trauma, and yet you are here in the present, side-by-side with everyone else living their lives and moving forwards – and yet you are not here in the present; you feel like a ghost, constantly and violently thrown back into your past. It’s exhausting – and pretty debilitating. What processing the trauma means is that your mind and body have the space and time to go back to the traumatic experience and feel and see the things that you were unable to process. Those emotions, thoughts, and beliefs don’t just disappear; they hide away in the recesses of your mind and body, waiting to resurface. EMDR gave me the opportunity, through a licensed professional, to confront the trauma face-on, experiencing and processing every layer of pain and emotion that came out of the traumatic event.
‘Layer’ is an important word. The mind has many layers of emotion, thought, and belief which can be accessed and explored one by one. To find the source of any problem in life, you really do have to dig through the psychological layers of yourself. Yet with trauma, I think this requires a little extra help. I spent many years in therapy, but also alone through reflection and meditation, understanding myself – yet what happened in EMDR was something I would never have been able to do alone.
In EMDR, we worked on a specific target memory which was the main image of the trauma. The first sessions began with my distress at a 10/10, and through six months of weekly sessions, recalling the memory, allowing emotions and thoughts to come up, feeling grief, physical pain, emotional pain, fear, anger, sadness, guilt, shame, and distress, just noticing what was there, shifting my eyes left to right and alternately tapping on my shoulders (this is a technique called ‘bilateral stimulation’), I was able to take my distress down to 0.
Each session was an hour long and would follow the unfolding course of my thoughts and emotions. We allowed whatever needed to surface space to exist, without analysing, just noticing, and being present with the unprocessed contents of the past. It was pretty amazing to witness how the mind can unravel and essentially heal itself with the proper space and guidance to open up.
Opening myself up to really difficult memories, thoughts and emotions was really tough, and at the end of some sessions, I would feel as if I had just been at war. I was often completely exhausted, sometimes for days afterward. I was quite surprised at just how tiring the processing work was. What I found really difficult was allowing myself sufficient time and space to rest and recover after sessions – I often felt guilty for not being productive. But as my therapist reminded me, trauma processing is hard work and it’s enough to just focus on that. These post-session experiences of guilt and exhaustion taught me to have more compassion for myself, and to take care of my inner child who I was working hard to support and heal.
3. How has EMDR changed my worldview?
Six months after starting my first EMDR session, and the results have been really positive. I’ve gone from having PTSD episodes of flashbacks, dissociation, vomiting, and panic attacks on a weekly basis to hardly ever having PTSD episodes. In fact, the only time I am really suffering from an attack of PTSD is when the trauma or the perpetrator’s name is explicitly talked about or made fun of. But I am much stronger to triggers and my reactions are nothing like they were before.
The traumatic experience has also become more integrated into my life as a fact of the past. Something I really struggled with was believing it was true – accepting it as a reality and not as something I had misremembered or imagined. Somehow, understanding it as a moment in my life that has shaped me in important ways has made a huge difference. Denying trauma is a big part of dissociative symptoms, so accepting the experience has massively reduced my tendency to dissociate and feel ‘fuzzy’ or ‘dizzy’, which in the past was a constant feature of my experience.
EMDR has also lessened my general anxiety and panic. Since I have suffered from complex PTSD rather than PTSD, meaning that there have been a number of difficult or ‘traumatic’ experiences in my life, there is still anxiety and fear present, especially in regard to other people. But then again, I don’t think anyone lives without fear and anxiety – it is a basic fact of human life. Yet, the key is to know when that anxiety is misaligned or out of sync with your reality – then it might just be a cry from within asking you to search within yourself for what needs your attention.
On a more objective note, EMDR has shown me first-hand how deeply connected the mind and the body are. So many of my trauma-related symptoms have been physical and have shown up in my body in the form of tension, tightness, skin complaints, pains, and discomfort. Working through emotions and physical sensations in EMDR has shown me just how much of the mind reveals itself in the body. I would be really interested to try out some trauma-based yoga or other body-based approaches such as TRE to further help release some of the tension in my body left from trauma.
Finally, EMDR has changed my perspective of myself. In fact, it’s pretty much turned it upside-down. I’ve gone from feeling deeply ashamed and fearful, not trusting myself, doubting myself, even being disgusted by myself, to feeling that – really - I’m brave, that my intuition has led me to the truth about myself and my past, that I wasn’t ‘going mad’ or ‘losing my mind’, but that my body was trying to tell me something really important about my past that needed my care and attention. I feel so much stronger for accepting the past and allowing myself to feel again. I’ve learnt a lot about trauma’s effect on the mind and the body, and I feel really grateful that I’ve had the opportunity and the strength to begin healing.
Knowing the deeper layers of our minds and bodies and healing the pain we carry is a lifelong journey, and despite the suffering, I’m grateful to have been able to begin this journey at a young age. It wasn’t my degree in philosophy, but my life experience which has taught me this: we become ourselves when we have looked truthfully within. As Jung once wrote, “your vision will become clear only when you can look into your own heart. Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes.”
Thanks for reading. If you resonate with anything in this article, please feel free to contact me through my website or on social media. For help with PTSD and for more information, please see the links below: