Maybe you have heard about EMDR and you are curious about what it is or if it may be a good fit for you? EMDR stands for eye movement desensitization and reprocessing. It essentially mimics the processing that occurs during REM sleep to help your brain reorganize and heal difficult memories and “unstick” negative beliefs. This is done by administering bi-lateral stimulation through eye movements or tappers – helping both hemispheres of your brain to “turn on” at the same time while processing a memory.
Now, if you are like me, this may sound too easy or maybe just too woo-hooey for you. I felt this way also when I first heard about EMDR… and I am a trained professional in this field! But let me bring you some support as to why this works. For the ease of understanding, let’s think of your memory network like a filing cabinet and the information your brain gathers as pieces of paper. In “normal” daily situations, our brains take in mass amounts of information and filter it through a process to collect necessary data, file it where it needs to be accessed appropriately, and gets rid of what we do not need to keep. However, when we are under threat or a high stress event occurs, the processing gets interrupted and information gets stored incorrectly. When this happens, it causes distress, flashbacks, dysfunctional beliefs, and triggers.
In a controlled manner, EMDR allows you to bring up the triggering pieces of paper, encourages the brain to look and re-identify it, and then correctly files it where it needs to go. By reprogramming the traumatic memory, you remove the upsetting emotions that come with it and it will become neutral or even positive!
Please understand that this does NOT take away experiences or make lessons learned from the event non-existent. It simply removes the real-time distress and anxious responses from it. This is still part of your story and part of what has shaped the positive aspects of who you are- but the negative effects no longer need to follow you.
EMDR is a gentle option to treatment. It is most known for working with traumatic memories, but it is also great for when you feel “stuck” and can not seem to get around harmful patterns or negative beliefs. If this is you, EMDR might be perfect to refile those papers and get you back on track!
I am sure you have heard the term post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It is so easily thrown around in the media, television shows and movies. It is hard with all this information in our culture about PTSD to really know what is fact and what is myth.
It is helpful to know what PTSD really is before going any further. PTSD is a group of symptoms mental and physical that combine together due to a trauma experience. This experience has to be of such a high level that the individual felt that he/she was going to die. This complicates the diagnosis since my level of feeling threatened enough to feel like I am going to die is different than yours.
Trauma can be considered “little t” traumas and then “Big T” trauma. Big T traumas are those that usually have an external cause. These are serious vehicular accidents, sexual assault, military service. “Little t” traumas are those that are more personal, not life threatening traumas; examples of these are : braking a bone, verbal abuse, harassment. There is a third category of how you can acquire PTSD. Those would be secondary traumatic events. These are experiences a person has from watching a trauma of someone else; this would include 9/11, watching someone die, hearing a person describe their trauma. 9/11 is a special category since never before had so many people witnessed a loss of life and destruction in history. Across the world we watched and felt a fear of impending doom. Many people within weeks were seeing their doctor for feeling that had never occurred to him/her.
Trauma can be divided into two diagnoses depending on how much time has passed since the traumatic incident. If your experience happened in less than 30 days before and you are showing symptoms of the trauma you would be diagnosed with Acute Stress Disorder. If the incident was over 30 days before then your diagnosis would fall into the category of Post Traumatic Disorder. The symptoms of both of these disorders is the same.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder has many symptoms. You can think of all of the symptoms of PTSD in a big pot. Not every person has the same PTSD response to trauma. It is a wide range of symptoms.
Mental & Emotional Symptoms Include:
• Intrusive thoughts • Nightmares • Flashbacks • Emotional distress after exposure to traumatic reminders • Trauma-related thoughts or feelings • Negative affect • Trauma-related reminders • Inability to recall key features of the trauma • Overly negative thoughts and assumptions about oneself or the world • Exaggerated blame of self or others for causing the trauma • Decreased interest in activities • Feeling isolated • Difficulty experiencing positive affect • Difficulty concentrating
Physical Symptoms Include:
• Irritability or aggression • Physical reactivity after exposure to traumatic reminders • Risky or destructive behavior • Hyper vigilance • Heightened startle reaction • Difficulty sleeping
You don’t need to have all of these symptoms to be diagnosed with PTSD. There are a few requirements as these symptoms are broken into categories. Each of these symptoms can be effecting a person from “mild” to severe. I put mild in “ “ because any of these symptoms experienced in its mild form can significantly effect a person’s life.
There is treatment for PTSD. In the past there weren’t too many ways to heal from PTSD.
First, you need to see a doctor to get properly diagnosed. This can be your general practioner or a psychiatrist. I encourage using a psychiatrist since a psychiatrist has had special training to identify this disorder among others. Once diagnosed then you can create a treatment plan. A doctor can prescribe medication to help with the symptoms, but medication will not help heal PTSD. Some form of therapy is necessary. Talk therapy can help along with giving you coping skills. You can meet with someone who is non-judgmental can be extremely freeing.
The best therapy for trauma experiences is EMDR, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing. The way traumas are retained in your brain is very different from regular memories. EMDR is able to resolve PTSD by addressing each issue related to your trauma. There is little talking involved and the counselor will not explore feeling in the traditional way. Often old memories that are somehow connected to the current trauma can also come up and be resolved.
The best thing you can do is to explore what options work for you. If you try one option and it doesn’t work, keep exploring. Each person heals in his/her own way. If you are using medication and do not feel that it is helping you then call your doctor or psychiatrist. Don’t’ give up. There is help available to you.
A teacher is walking down the hall, as she turns the corner, she sees a child shove another student into a locker. When she approaches the child, she asks, “Why did you do that?” The child replies, “Do what? I didn’t do anything.” The teacher then says, “But I saw you push that student.” The child replies, “No, that wasn’t me.”
If you are like me, you probably felt a little jolt of frustration tighten in your chest reading that response. How could there be such a discrepancy between realities? How could an experience of an event that is so obvious be denied with such certainty? Four years after my stem-cell treatment that put my lymphoma into remission, I had been experiencing debilitating sinus infections that were getting worse by the month. Perhaps more alarming was how fast my lymph nodes were proliferating, mimicking lymphoma. It was a puzzle to my doctor, who kept insisting my cancer was coming back and that I needed biopsies to prove a relapse. After all, my lymph nodes were behaving much like that in a cancer patient.
By: Steve Cheney, LPC-I Supervised By: Dr. John L. Garcia, Ed.D, LPC-S
Every six months or so, I would have a PET scan, blood work, and the occasional biopsy. Each biopsy came back negative – no cancer. The riddle continued. The question I kept asking was, “if it’s not cancer, then what is happening?” I told my doctor about the sinus infections and feeling sick, but that seemed to be brushed off every time I brought it up. The one thing I couldn’t shake was the feeling that something wasn’t quite right. After several years of this, my mental and physical health was deteriorating. As relieving as it was to see “no evidence of active disease,” I was worn out from the persistent worry and anxiety that was always with me. It was extremely unsettling. The thought of the next appointment filled me with dread. An eerie rumor began to circulate in my mind: it’s cancer.
In November 2015, it happened again. My doctor reported that I needed another biopsy. At this point, I had enough. I told her I wanted to go back to my original doctor. She told me “well, they’re just going to say the same thing.” I was caught off-guard by a very rebellious, tired, and desperate voice within that said, want to make a bet? I chose to tactfully reply to the doctor, “I’d like to take my chances, just to see.” This worried me. I wanted a different answer. But what if the doctor was right? I had to remind myself of the reality that I was tired of invasive biopsies that provided no answers. I needed to find different help. I walked out of that appointment knowing I would never set foot in that office again. Immediately afterwards, I went downstairs and tried to make an appointment with the first doctor I ever saw at the hospital – someone I trusted and who I thought could share a fresh perspective on my situation. A consultation appointment was scheduled a month away, in January, 2016.
Shortly after this small victory, I fell ill several times. In one instance, I became so sick that I was taken to the emergency room with a fever exceeding 103 degrees. Thinking I had made a grave mistake in declining another biopsy, doubts about my self-advocacy started to rush in. After a few tests, the doctor came back to tell me they found nothing. The only thing I got from that visit was a substantial amount of IV fluid, a $4,000 hospital bill, and the need to urinate every 10 minutes. I was beginning to really doubt whether I should have switched doctors. I felt like I was going insane. I thought I was doing this for the best and instead things are getting worse.
Shortly after that ER visit, I realized I needed to take things into my own hands. My reality that consisted of constant suffering was not being given the attention it needed. The worrying was not helping, either. I had an upcoming appointment with a different doctor and I wanted to be prepared. I needed to take things into my own hands. I started by building an Excel spreadsheet and imported bloodwork data collected since my diagnosis in 2011. The doubt started to set in again. What am I going to find here? Did I actually think I would be the one to catch something that somehow evaded the doctors and nurses? Upon immediate completion of the spreadsheet, I noticed that one of my blood counts, something called Immunogammaglobulin or “IgG,” was registering extremely low. The normal range for this count was anywhere between 600 and 1200. Its value dropped slightly over the years and then plummeted – right around the exact time I had those emergency room visits. I thought to myself, if this had mattered, surely someone would have caught this, right?
When it came time for my new appointment, the doctor took one look at the count and said that it could possibly explain the lymph node proliferation and sinus infections. I was scheduled to have IgG replacement therapy to see if that would help. It only took one treatment before I started to feel the effects. It was the healthiest I had felt since I could remember. In fact, it had been so long since I had felt this good that I completely forgot how it felt to be “normal.” The difference was astonishing. I’ve now been diagnosed with primary immunodeficiency, requiring IGG replacement every month and I have felt completely healthy ever since. At this point, you’re probably wondering how gaslighting relates to this story. I’ve noticed that popular sources tend to simplify the concept of gaslighting by breaking it down into categories of victim and perpetrator. By using these oversimplified terms, I am concerned that it may be missing a larger audience.
These oversimplifications also imply intentionality. Of course, there are times when individuals intentionally distort reality to cause harm. I also believe there are times when this is not the case. I don’t believe I was a victim and that my doctor was the perpetrator. I don’t believe that I was intentionally deceived. What I do believe is that since oncologists are hyper-focused on catching cancer, they may be vulnerable to letting something obvious slip under the radar. Unfortunately, this resulted in a preference for one reality over the other, which is gaslighting. Luckily, I was somehow able to come to terms with the situation and eventually change doctors. I wonder what happens to people who don’t have the luxury to leave an unhelpful situation like I did.
At what point does one person’s reality matter more than another’s? How desperate are we to preserve our own world view? When do we stop asking what the other person sees? The one thing that comes to my mind when I ask these questions is the thought I wish someone had asked me how I was feeling. In other words, the communication cycle lacked any form of feedback.
In the instance of domestic emotional abuse, gaslighting is an essential component needed to persuade others that the reality of psychologically harming loved ones is normal. I can imagine those who are suffering from it secretly wishing for feedback. The only problem is that the desired feedback source is someone who cannot give it. So, where do they get feedback? It’s not something as simple as switching doctors to get more helpful feedback. They cannot just make appointments with different families, shopping around to see which one would be a good fit. How can these people get feedback that validates their circumstances rather than creating more distortion?
Going back to the categories of “perpetrator” and “victim” roles, we run the risk of excluding those who are not even aware they are being abused. Physical violence and sexual assault leave their marks, and it can be obvious who the perpetrator and victim are. However, someone experiencing emotional abuse (without physical or sexual abuse) is already in an extremely vague and complicated situation, which leaves them more vulnerable to gaslighting. They won’t see themselves as a victim because it is never that clear or obvious. That’s exactly the function of gaslighting. It creates so much doubt that you can never be sure what reality is correct, yours or theirs?
If this is the case, then maybe we need to be sensitive and listen to understand instead of listening to respond. When we only listen to respond, we run a great risk of assuming our reality is more important than another’s.