What EMDR Therapy Feels Like

After my serious illness and the death of Hugo I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

PTSD happens as the result of trauma. Part of PTSD means that parts of the brain that deal with threats, memory, and decision-making (as well as the links between them) are damaged, meaning it is difficult to distinguish between what is happening now, and what is in the past.

That’s what causes the triggers, flashbacks, and panic attacks synonymous with PTSD.

I’m a visual person and like my analogies. I’ve been thinking of PTSD as like a computer that’s on the blink: all the programs, files and folders are in there but a Trojan virus has got in and infected everything. The inside of the computer is in disarray, the programs are playing up: they freeze, shut down, usually when you are in the middle of something. All the files and folders are in the wrong places.

Nothing works properly, so getting something done takes bloody ages and is a pain in the proverbial.

Surely there must be a way to fix the computer?

Yes! There is.

The cure?

It has a not-very catchy name: Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing, or EMDR for short. In its simplest terms, the aim of EMDR is to repair damage, restore connections. Free up RAM so the programs perform as they should. Put all the folders and files in their correct places.

We’re not going to get a new computer, so we have to do our best with the one we have. Recondition it, reboot.

Like installing some updates. Let’s just hope it doesn’t turn in to Windows 10: a messy disaster that was even worse than we had before. I’m hoping for more of an Apple iOS – quick to start up, quick to work, functioning well, systems well-maintained, rarely breaks down.

Perhaps it won’t be as good as new, but a bit of character is more interesting anyway, isn’t it?

This graphic attempts - in very simple terms! - to describe the process.

This graphic attempts – in very simple terms! – to describe the process.

The first few sessions were spent compiling a timeline of significant events – both positive and negative – of my life to date. That’s so your therapist can gain an understanding of how earlier life experiences may have influenced how you have responded to the trauma, what makes you tick, how you respond to things, and how you see yourself.

It’s an interesting and challenging process; for me it involved revisiting events that I know have impacted me in some way and viewing them with a new perspective. Along the way my memory uncovered things I had forgotten about: it’s all about awareness, and gave some fascinating revelations.

‘Fascinating’ doesn’t always mean good, though. It was hard-going and involved delving in to areas I had left buried for good self-protection reasons, but everything needs to be dug up, dusted off, and examined, no matter how messy it gets.

Once the timeline was complete, it was time to get to the heart of the matter by revisiting my illness and Hugo’s death.

I’d already felt well and truly beaten up.

Before you start, you identify a ‘safe place’ to retreat to you in your head when it all gets too much.

One of my biggest concerns before starting EMDR was that I would have to explain my long and complicated story to the billionth new person (only a small exaggeration there).

A huge relief is that you explain in only a couple of words to your therapist the scene you are going to explore. It saves you revisiting the trauma yet again, and takes in to account that there is so much about traumatic memories that cannot be expressed in words: there are smells, sounds, physical feelings.

You then agree with your therapist a place to start, and let your brain go there. Reexperience the memories, observing, not trying to stop or prompt anything, or judge what your mind’s eye is seeing.

While you’re thinking, your eyes are also moving, flicking back and forth.

You probably want to know how it all works.

If you were paying attention earlier you may have noticed the therapy mentions ‘eye movement’. The eye movement apparently helps restore the damaged parts of your brain. Some therapists use flashing light contraptions for your eyes to follow, some use a pen. My therapist holds up two fingers (no-fuss, though I do worry she will get RSI!). Like I said, a bit hocus pocus.

It’s difficult to explain, and feels a bit like witchcraft. It’s not, has a good evidence base (it wouldn’t be provided by the NHS otherwise!) but still, feels a bit mystical.

So as strange as it sounds, during a session all I need to do is sit and stare at my therapist’s moving fingers, and observe all the chaos that is happening within do its thing.

Sounds simple, eh?

While there is no medical paraphernalia involved, no literally digging through skin, muscle, bone, it’s a messy business. A mixture of literal and metaphorical blood, sweat, and tears.

It’s bloody exhausting.

Sadistic, too.

After the first session of EMDR proper, I wondered why on earth I was doing this to myself.  I went through it all once, and it was awful, hence the trauma. Why voluntarily choose to put myself through it again? And not only that, I thought I was going completely, utterly mad.

I’m glad I posted about it on Instagram.

Feeling worse is apparently a good sign. It means the reprocessing is happening.

The computer is being fixed.

It’s not just about voluntarily revisiting the trauma: it’s also about accepting the nature of flashbacks and panic attacks are arbitrary, without warning, difficult to control.

Living like that, pretending I am ok and carrying on regardless long-term is no way to live. It’s not really living.

I have several more sessions to endure go. Each session wipes me out for a few days – it’s like my brain is using all its energy on reprocessing.

It’s frustrating, because I want to get on with stuff, continue taking over the world.

Being patient isn’t a strong point: it’s like when your computer does updates. There’s nothing you can do but wait for it to finish (and usually the computer updates when you’re desperate to get on and do something, doesn’t it?).


The positive thing is understanding that my response is expected, ‘normal’.

It’s an unpleasant experience. I am holding on to what others who have come out of the other side have said: that EMDR is horrific, but it is the best thing they have ever done because they are now in control of the trauma, it is no longer in control of them. As a result of putting themselves through it, they feel even stronger and more resilient.

To use another analogy: say you have a dodgy knee or hip, and need a replacement joint. You’re probably in pain, discomfort, and unable to get on with life as you would like. The operation isn’t fun, is pretty painful, and involves a period of rehabilitation. If you do as you’re told and look after yourself, though, the pain will have been worth it because once you are recovered you can go back to playing football, dancing, or whatever feeling even stronger than ever.

So I’m holding on…I will get there, and it will all be worth it to be even more awesomer.

4 Comments on What EMDR Therapy Feels Like

  1. Mechele Evans
    March 26, 2021 at 10:58 pm (6 months ago)

    Leigh, I am very sorry for your loss and wish you continued healing. I also want to tell you that your description of EMDR really kicks ass. I love the analogy of the computer for the brain. Very clever! Wishing you much happiness.

  2. Karen
    January 28, 2019 at 10:18 pm (3 years ago)

    I found your post on Pinterest and I’m intrigued about the long lasting effectiveness of your EMDR sessions. I’m beginning the process, and while it is tough and often exhausting, I’m finding relief and hope I didn’t realize I was missing. If you could email me directly, I’d love to hear more about life/healing “After The article”

  3. Katy (What Katy Said)
    June 21, 2016 at 10:19 am (5 years ago)

    How interesting! I’ve not heard of it but it sounds powerful – your final analogy is a good one. You will get there in the end my lovely. cannot wait to see you in a few days! xx

  4. Alice @ The Filling Glass
    June 20, 2016 at 8:22 pm (5 years ago)

    Well done Leigh for sticking with it. It sounds like hard work but I really hope that it will be worth it for you. When it come to our minds it’s not always understandable why or how therapies work, but it’s such a relief to know that there is an evidence base that show they do. And you make a great analogy with a computer! Hugs xx


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