How EMDR Therapy Helped Me Recover from Sexual Assault

EMDR Therapy Helped Me Recover from Sexual AssaultAlexanderFord / Antorti / Oatawa / Getty Images

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“Relax your eyes and let them follow the tip of my finger.” I tried not to feel self-conscious as I focused on the therapist’s finger as it swayed slowly back and forth in front of my face. In a snug little office in a London townhouse, she’d repositioned the armchairs so that we were close together, facing each other. A lamp glowed on her desk, and outside the window, late summer rain fell on the green leaves of a London plane tree.

It was 2019, and I’d never heard of EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy) before. I’d dabbled with talk therapy at various junctures in my life but had never really found someone I connected with. This one was new to me, and I’d been skeptical when she first suggested it as a treatment for my post-traumatic stress disorder.

“That sounds a little woo-woo,” I told her when she described the process, which would entail recalling a traumatic memory—in my case, a recent sexual assault—while my eyes tracked her finger. This “bilateral movement” would allow my brain to reprocess the memory, lessening the visceral reaction it had caused in me.

She smiled her wide, toothy smile. “I know it sounds a bit ‘out there’—like I’m just going to wave my hand in front of your face and you’ll feel better—but I can assure you it’s extensively researched and evidence-based.” She told me the method’s unusual origin story: In the late 1980s, a New York–born psychologist named Francine Shapiro was walking along a tree-lined park path, thinking about some particularly painful memories. As she walked, her eyes flitted back and forth, and she was struck by a sudden realization that the pain of the memories felt somehow lessened.

Shapiro went on to create a new form of therapy based on her experience in the park that day. Despite initial skepticism in the scientific community, study after study demonstrated the therapy’s beneficial outcomes. Since 2016, EMDR has been used to successfully treat more than seven million people in 130 countries. Over 30 randomized clinical trials (the gold standard in research) have shown it to be a highly effective treatment, and it’s recommended by the American Psychological Association, International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies, and World Health Organization as a treatment for PTSD. One notable study by Bessel van der Kolk, MD, author of The Body Keeps the Score, showed it to be better than Prozac in treating trauma symptoms.

By the time I’d made it to the therapist’s office, I was feeling so awful, I was willing to try anything. At first, my PTSD diagnosis had sat uncomfortably with me—in my mind, it was for soldiers or survivors of a mass shooting. I felt strangely resistant, as if my trauma wasn’t enough.

But the symptoms had undeniably taken over my life. Each morning, I’d wake at 5 a.m. and bolt upright, filled with an unnamable but all-consuming dread. At night, I had violent nightmares, seemingly on loop, that woke me up whimpering and with a thumping heart.

Taking the Tube (London’s subway system) had become a waking nightmare. I couldn’t bear being close to other passengers. My whole body would tense up until I was totally rigid, and I would inevitably get off several stops early just to avoid the feeling that someone could touch me at any moment. Had I always swerved to the other side of the sidewalk or crossed the road whenever a lone man approached in the distance? It seemed impossible to remember—my carefree self from before the assault was a stranger now, a character from a half-forgotten book.

I started wearing my computer glasses, with their blue-light-filtering, non-corrective lenses, at all times, feeling as if I needed a buffer between myself and the world. I stopped wearing my trademark red lipstick because I didn’t want to be noticed.

And then there were the spiraling thoughts. The slightest trigger would send me down warrens of obsessive thinking: What could I have done differently to prevent this from happening? How could I ever be safe again? How could anyone? And thoughts about the perpetrator: Would this stop him from doing this to other women? Would he seek revenge now that I’d reported him?

There were other thoughts, too. Unwelcome, complicated, guilty thoughts. Making a complaint about the sexual assault had thrown me into utter turmoil. I was raised to keep my head below the parapet, and had done my best to avoid confrontation my whole life. Suddenly, I was at the center of a storm I had no part in making. Wild thoughts spun in my head. What if he killed himself—would it be my fault?

These symptoms—hypervigilance, rumination, guilt—are all common hallmarks of PTSD, according to Rebecca Kase, a licensed clinical social worker and a trauma therapist whose EMDR training and consulting company Kase & Co has trained 7,000 therapists. “PTSD is not just about trauma,” she explained when I reached out to her for insights. “It’s about experiences that overwhelm the nervous system to a point that your brain cannot integrate that memory in an adaptive way. When that happens, we have symptoms—just like if you eat too much food and you overwhelm your digestive tract, you have indigestion. The same thing kind of happens to our neurobiology: When things feel overwhelming, we can’t really metabolize them or digest them. The outcome is symptoms of PTSD.”

Kase first discovered EMDR more than 20 years ago when working at a rape crisis center. She was astonished by the positive results the therapy could bring. “I found that clients were saying, ‘It just doesn’t hurt anymore,’ because it really gets to the root of the wounds that other therapies can’t reach,” she said. “For example, cognitive behavioral therapy is about learning skills to regulate or put Band-Aids on, whereas EMDR feels like true healing without the need for Band-Aids or constant self-regulation. The research shows that after a successful round of EMDR, symptoms are greatly improved—and they continue to improve over time.”

Despite all the studies, neuroscientists still don’t know exactly why or how EMDR works. But Kase says this isn’t particularly surprising. “We don’t know how any therapy works; we don’t even know how Prozac works,” she told me. “But the hypothesis is that when you’re focusing on that incident from the past and you’re also trying to focus on the bilateral stimulation, it taxes your memory. It’s believed that taxing your memory system in this way breaks the intensity of the memory. The distraction gives your nervous system the kind of the bandwidth it needs to actually integrate the previously maladaptively stored memory.”

Before beginning EMDR, my therapist guided me through two preparation sessions, where she explained the process in depth and worked through my personal history. She also helped me hone in on a set of the most triggering memories. Then we began EDMR itself. During each 60-minute session, we’d focus on just one painful memory we’d identified. I was surprised at how little I had to describe the memories themselves—it was enough for the therapist to just touch on the memory, with some prompts about how I was feeling at that moment. My job was to focus intently on the traumatic recollection, while watching her finger move back and forth.

Since Shapiro’s discovery in the ’80s, EMDR has evolved beyond simple eye movements. Some practitioners now use tapping on alternate legs or shoulders, vibrating buzzers that switch between hands, or tones that echo in each ear. My therapist had me cross my arms over my chest and lightly tap each shoulder in rhythm with my eye movements. Another core component was reframing my key feelings about myself in the traumatic memory. In my case, my key feeling was I am so powerless. Each week, we would spend some time changing this to I am safe, and I am in control.

Week by week, I felt my symptoms lessen a little. Although EMDR has been touted as “emotional healing at warp speed,” and I could feel a shift happening, there was no denying it was hard work. Like any type of therapy, it was challenging and emotional working through painful memories. Still, by the time I finished eight weeks of EMDR, my nightmares had stopped and the rumination had slowed to a manageable level, as had the hypervigilance that had made getting on the Tube so hard.

But I had moved into a new stage: anger. I asked Kase if that meant I hadn’t had enough sessions, or if it hadn’t worked properly. She reassured me that feelings of fury are a normal part of the healing process: “It’s a common experience for people to move from sadness and shock into anger and rage. It’s a sign you’re healing in the right direction, because when you feel all that overwhelm and victimization, you’re stuck in a state of collapse. Neurobiologically speaking, that’s the real bottom rung in the ladder of your autonomic nervous system—the natural upward progression is to move into a state of feeling pissed. Anger is not always a bad thing; it gets us up off the couch, motivated to do things in our life.”

By the time I left my therapist’s office for the final time, the leaves of the London plane tree outside were yellow and scattered on the ground, and I felt myself coming back to myself. Four years later, my resounding feeling is that EMDR helped me enormously at one of the darkest times of my life. But it’s impossible to know how I would be feeling now had I not had it, or how much of my healing is tied to the passage of time. These days, I do still think about what happened to me, and I do still feel some anger. But it’s no longer all-consuming. Most of the time, I don’t feel afraid or in pain anymore.

I didn’t know it at the time, but Francine Shapiro died just a few months before I started the therapy she created. Sometimes I think about her walking along that tree-lined path, the day she had her breakthrough. I think about the fight she faced to get EMDR recognized and studied, and I think about what a beautiful thing she has left us with.

Any content published by Oprah Daily is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. It should not be regarded as a substitute for professional guidance from your healthcare provider.

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