One Session of EMDR Helped Me Overcome Trauma and Flashbacks
Writer Jane Alexander suffered with PTSD and flashbacks after an accident
Here she shares her experience of EMDR, which helped her feel better after just one session
You can find verified EMDR therapists on welldoing.org – start your search here
It was a bright sunny Monday morning in London and I was feeling great. I’d had a lovely weekend with friends and was heading off to my publishers to discuss a new book. So I had a spring in my step as I walked to Finsbury Park station. Then I felt my foot snag on something and I pitched forwards. I had a sickening moment of realisation – there was nothing I could do to save myself – before I crashed into the kerb. As I sat on the pavement, blood dripping steadily from my nose, I knew I’d probably broken my right wrist. In fact, I’d smashed it comprehensively, fractured my left elbow and also broken my nose. After a complex operation on my wrist, I was warned that my rehab was going to be long and painful. What I didn’t realise was that the psychological effects were going to prove even more debilitating.
While my bones healed, my mind remained broken and stuck. I was constantly terrified that I was going to trip and fall again. Every time I inched down the stairs in my house, clutching the bannister, I felt a lurch in my stomach – in my mind’s eye I could see myself tripping, tumbling, lying at the foot of the stairs. When I finally plucked up courage to go outside, I felt as if I’d aged 30 years – I kept seeing myself tripping, kept seeing myself smashing into the unyielding pavement and breaking more bones. I self-diagnosed myself pretty easily – although my accident was, in the scheme of things, relatively small, I was suffering PTSD. Fortunately I knew where to turn. Years ago I had researched EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing) and knew it could work wonders with trauma, so I booked myself in to see Wendy Savage, a psychotherapist in Exeter who practices the technique.
What is EMDR?
EMDR was originated by Francine Shapiro, an American clinical psychologist, in 1987. Much of her initial research was with Vietnam veterans experiencing PTSD. The effects were remarkable – soldiers who had previously been resistant to all forms of therapy were cured within a few sessions. Nowadays the traumas tend to come from car crashes or accidents, from loss or grief. Sometimes they generate from painful incidents way back in childhood, including abuse.
The theory is that when a trauma occurs certain parts of the brain become over-excited and "freeze" the information in its original anxiety-producing form. So instead of letting the experience become a normal memory, the brain clutches onto the terror and fear. This "frozen" information will resurface giving rise to intrusive thoughts, uncomfortable feelings, flashbacks, nightmares, even full-blown phobias or panic attacks.
'EMDR mimics REM sleep,' explained Wendy when we met. ‘It allows the memory to be stored in the hippocampus rather like a photo in an album. We can still recall it but it feels just like an ordinary memory. It no longer affects our daily lives.’
What happens in an EMDR session?
The actual process is deceptively simple. Wendy and I sat opposite each other in armchairs. Once I felt comfortable and safe, she asked me to recall my fall in minute detail. ‘Which part was the most frightening?’ she asked. I didn’t hesitate: ‘The moment I realised I couldn’t do anything to stop myself falling,’ I replied.
She moved her arm rather like the pendulum of a clock and asked me to follow her fingers with my eyes while imagining myself pitching forward. What happened next was extraordinary. When her arm reached the point directly in front of me, my eyelids started fluttering furiously and tingles ran down both arms. She encouraged me to stay with the feeling and, after several minutes, my eye movements gradually returned to normal. I found, to my amazement, that I could think of the fall without that horrible sick lurch.
Then she went deeper still, exploring my feelings around the accident, the underlying beliefs I had - that I was ‘stupid’ to trip; that the world isn’t a safe place for me. My hour-long session felt like a year of psychotherapy.
In well-trained hands EMDR can be a powerful and swift catalyst, stimulating the mind to reprocess disturbing information quickly and without re-traumatising the client. When the therapy first appeared in the UK in the 1990s, it was hailed as a wonder-therapy to cure all ills. However therapists soon realised that EMDR is not suitable for everyone or for every problem. It only works where there is a clear traumatic incident at the root of the issue; it simply isn’t effective when dealing with a conditioned response or habit. When I first experienced EMDR back in the 1990s, I had hoped to conquer my fear of public speaking. It didn’t work and I found the experience frustrating. This time, however, the response was instant and impressive. Wendy explained that, given the right issue, the success rate is usually high (around 80 percent). She said that, in my case, most likely one session would be enough.
It sounded too good to be true but I had to admit I left feeling totally different. Walking home I gauged my anxiety over falling had lessened by around 50 percent. After a week, it had subsided exponentially – I was still careful about how I walked but my fear wasn’t stopping me from leading a normal life. As I approach the year anniversary of my accident, I rarely think about tripping at all. Quite honestly it’s the best £50 I’ve ever spent.
EMDR therapist Joanna Head explains EMDR here: