Because getting help is smart, not crazy.
Come on in.
Hey. Thanks for being willing to look into this for yourself, 'cause it's hard, right? "I'm not crazy. I don't need therapy!"
I hear you, believe me! You see these therapists on TV and in movies, and you always get kind of the same vibe. Usually a little older with the thick-rimmed glasses (bonus points for the chain thing), which they'll usually take off when they're frustrated. They usually suffer some sort of condition that makes them speak in question form only, and their hips are out of alignment from sitting with their legs crossed all the time. Also, they are infuriatingly calm about everything. Like, if that room were on fire, you could see them softly saying, "Hmmm. This seems to be a dangerous situation" and then writing a note about it. I'll tell you, I think I would come out of that interaction feeling unsteady even if I felt fine beforehand.
The thing is, that's not really all that accurate. Well, I'm sure there are people out there like that, but I'm not one of them. Admittedly, I do have the glasses, but that's because my wife helped me pick them out (I still prefer my contacts, I think).
So why do people come to therapy, and what's it really like? There are a bunch of different reasons. Maybe you feel stuck, or angry, or sad, and you can't figure out why. Or maybe you do know why, but you can't quite seem to move past it. Maybe you can't stop doing something that's causing problems. Maybe you don't have what you want. Maybe you do have something you don't want, and that's hard, too.
Maybe you don't know what you want at all.
Sometimes, it's just nice to talk to someone who's objective and who's not gonna turn around and blab. Like, sometimes you have things you want to say that you just can't to other people in your life, or you just want to speak your mind without having to measure your words and be diplomatic about it. Sometimes, just being able to talk freely about something helps more than any amount of advice, you know?
So what's it like? I can't speak for anyone else, really, but I know that I'm trying to represent myself here in a realistic way. Things with me are as casual as you want them to be, and I'm a big believer in authenticity. What I mean by that is, if you tell me about how someone cheated you out of $10, I'll probably respond, "Dang, dude. That's, like, half a tank of gas" before we talk more about it. I guess I'm saying that I'm pretty conversational, but I will also be as respectful of your time as possible.
WHAT'S THE GOAL?
In my estimation, the whole goal of therapy is to work towards giving you choices over 1. How you perceive the world, and 2. How you respond to it. That's really all anyone wants. Personally, I've found EMDR to work incredibly well to this end.
WHAT IS EMDR?
Getting to the root of the problem
If you're looking for an in-depth explanation to EMDR, the official EMDR International Association (EMDRIA) has a great "What is EMDR Therapy?" page that's worth exploring. One cool thing about EMDR is that it is the second-most clinically researched therapy, just behind Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). That EMDRIA site I linked above is great for getting into all that stuff. Otherwise, continue on for a thorough, conversational overview that's divided into easy-to-digest sections.
INTRO TO THE AIP
Let's start off with an intro to the Adaptive Information Processing (AIP) model. That sounds complicated, but really it's just a description of how our systems deal with hurtful experiences. If you’ve ever had a scratch or a bruise or something, how long did that take to heal up? Probably not very long, right? And chances are, you weren’t really having to consciously dedicate energy to that task; instead, it was an automatic sort of thing. Well, our systems have a similarly automatic way of healing up emotional hurts, too.
TAKING IN THE MOMENT
All day long, we’re taking in information through our five senses, from experience to experience. Each one of these moments has five different components to it: The Images you were seeing; the Thoughts you were having; the Emotions you were experiencing; the body Sensations that were on board; and Beliefs about yourself or the world that were present at the time. These Beliefs, Images, Thoughts, Emotions, and body Sensations (BITES) make up this sort of “box” of information that a neural messenger then carries up to your brain.
OVERVIEW OF THE BRAIN
So, the brain is kind of complicated. To begin with, it's split into left and right halves/hemispheres that are joined in the middle by a big bundle of nerve fibers. Plus, we’re cross-wired, which means that the left half of your brain is in charge of the right half of your body and vice-versa.
On top of that, different areas of your brain are responsible for specific things, and there are overall bigger areas that generally house different kinds of things. And for simplicity’s sake, we’re going to focus on two big ones.
1. THE “MAMMAL BRAIN”
First, you've got your Limbic system, but we’re gonna call it the “mammal brain”. This is where you have the amygdala, which is responsible for emotional reactions and threat detection. You’ve also got your hippocampus here, which handles at least the “associations” part of memory. It’s where your impulsive reactions come from, too. Basically -- do you have a dog? This is what your dog runs on; there’s emotions, associations, and personality there.
However the mammal brain is really bad at two big things: One, it’s really bad at telling time, which is why you can leave the room for 10 minutes and your dog is convinced it’s been most of the day; and two, it’s also not good at differentiating between “similar” and “same." For example, have you ever been out in public and seen someone that looks a lot like someone you really would hate to see unexpectedly? Your mammal brain says, “IT’S THEM” and there’s this quick sense of anxiety that grips you, but then your human brain intervenes and says, “They look kinda similar, sure, but it’s not them," and you relax.
2. THE “HUMAN BRAIN”
Then, you've got your "human brain," or the Frontal Cortex. This is where more complicated stuff comes from, like intellectualization, sense of individuation, impulse control, language, creativity, and long-term decision-making. So, basically, everything that makes you a human. This is also the more complex components of memory, the ability to tell time, and the ability to differentiate between “similar” and “same."
THE BRAIN AS A WAREHOUSE
I like to think of all this as making up sort of a warehouse. You’ve got the mammal brain “receiving area," which is connected to the human brain “warehouse proper” by some double doors. And sitting by these doors is a security guard (the amygdala) that’s scanning every bit of information coming into your system to make sure there’s nothing threatening that he needs to react to.
So! From start to finish, the pathway of information goes like this:
You experience a moment and take in the Beliefs, Images, Thoughts, Emotions, and Body Sensations of that moment. That all gets packed into a “box” and a messenger carries it to your brain. It enters the mammal brain and gets scanned by the security guard for any threats that may be present in that moment. If it’s all clear/safe, that box then gets taken through the double doors to the human brain warehouse, where it gets set down and just kind of sits there until you go to sleep.
SLEEP IN THE WAREHOUSE
When you go to sleep, you stop taking in sensory information/boxes, and your human brain warehouse is full of fresh stuff to process. As you move through your different phases of sleep, it's like the warehouse manager is sorting all these boxes in preparation for processing.
Eventually, you get to a phase of sleep called REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep. Why do they call it that? Because your eyes are moving back and forth… rapidly. Because we’re cross-wired (remember?), when you look left, your right brain fires, and it's the same the other way around. So what happens is, your eyes are moving back and forth, which is causing the two halves of your brain to be stimulated back and forth fairly steadily. Due to the way it’s all wired together, that causes it to start sort of “talking” to itself, and it starts “talking” about what to do with all these boxes. Specifically, that conversation fires up a different structure in the human brain warehouse called the Anterior Cingulate, but we’re just gonna call it the Processor. When the processor fires up, it’s ready to work with all those boxes you’ve piled up.
HEALING UP THE EMOTIONAL HURTS
One by one, then, these boxes of moments get fed into the processor. Each box gets unpacked, and the information in there gets sorted into "useful" vs. "not useful" information. All the "useful" stuff gets what amounts to a "time and date" stamp, and it gets filed away in your memory library for easy accessing. All the "not useful" information, though, gets thrown away. Kind of like a scab isn’t part of you anymore after healing, it just stops being part of your system.
For example. Let's say you've told a joke that you thought was great, but no one laughed. What’s your emotional experience of that moment? You're maybe embarrassed, rejected, frustrated, etc. When that ends up in processing during REM sleep, how does it get sorted? Well, we want to learn not to tell that joke again, so your brain will hold on to that, as well as who was there, maybe the way you delivered it, and probably the fact that telling that joke could cause you emotional discomfort. That stuff gets the "time and date" stamp and goes to be filed away. However, it's really not useful to hold onto what the temperature was, what you were wearing, and more importantly, the actual emotional experience of it. After all, it’s not useful to have that flood of emotion come over you two weeks later in the shower, right? So your brain is probably going to ditch that.
In this way, emotional hurts get healed up in way that's kind of automatic, like when you get a paper cut and it just kind of goes away on its own (barring interference).
So, when everything’s going well, that’s how things work. I recommend taking a little break before reading on, since this is a lot of information that may be brand new.
WHEN A BOX ISN’T CLEAR
Sometimes, though, things get a little intense or overwhelming, and this whole system gets upended. Remember I mentioned the “security guard" that scans each of the boxes before it goes into the warehouse? Well, sometimes we experience a moment that’s pretty uncomfortable or threatening. Just like always, you’re going to take in the BITES of that moment, and that box is going to head up into the mammal brain receiving area and to the security guard. Well, when he sees this information that seems like it could be threatening to your physical or social safety, he perks up and takes a closer look (“Now, wait just a minute…”).
ANXIETY AND THE LEVER
Well, he’s also got this sort of lever on the wall behind him that’s connected to those double doors. When he pulls the lever, those doors close, and how far they close depends on how far he pulls that lever. That experience of the doors closing is called stress, or anxiety! The more he pulls that lever, the more anxious you get.
There are generally 4 things that happen on a gradient when you start getting anxious. Heart rate? Increases. Breathing? Faster and more shallow. Five senses? Heightened, and you’re more alert. Ability to rationalize and think clearly? Decreases.
So what happens when something is so overwhelming or threatening that the security guard makes the decision to pull that lever most or all the way down?
FIGHT OR FLIGHT
When that happens, your intellect and ability to think rationally just go out the window, and your emotions and muscle memory are running the show. You've probably seen this in action, like when someone's having a very spirited argument and begins calling names or breaking/throwing objects. Clearly, that person is not thinking rationally.
Let's say that something really big and threatening is happening. Your security guard slams those doors shut ("NOT LIKE THIS!") and runs off to pilot the giant fighting robot that is your body. See how your amygdala kind of hijacked your system? That's why this process is called "amygdala hijack" (for real), or Fight or Flight. This is a really useful mechanism when it comes to survival, because if you were to find a lion in your house, it's not helpful to spend valuable "getaway" time deciding what to do, or contemplating how that lion learned to open your front door, or evaluating what’s the least damaging way to escape. In that case, your best bet for survival is to essentially become an impulsive mammal who’s operating pretty much entirely on reflex.
BOXES GETTING STUCK = TRAUMA
Here’s the thing, though. Your senses don't magically stop taking in that BITES information just because the doors to the human brain warehouse are closed and there’s no one there to scan it in. Instead, all those messengers carrying boxes are forced to just put them down somewhere in that mammal brain receiving area instead of in the human brain warehouse. And when things calm down and those doors open back up, that stuff never gets put where it's supposed to go. Sure, all the new stuff that’s flowing in makes it into the warehouse, but all that piled-up stuff is stuck in your limbic system, without having been sorted or stamped.
Whenever this happens, it's called a traumatic event, and those boxes just sitting around in the mammal brain are the trauma. You can have a "Big-T Trauma" life-threatening event happen, like a car crash, assault, or a natural disaster, but you can also have interpersonal "little-t trauma," like when you find yourself in an incredibly embarrassing situation, or you have an emotionally overwhelming interaction, or you're rejected in a way that hurts. Regardless of "flavor," traumatic events get stuck the same way.
IT CAN START EARLY
The younger you are, the easier it is for you to get overwhelmed in the moment. Part of this is because your emotional systems are far more developed early on than your intellectual capacity, but another big part of it is that, things are just bigger, relatively. For instance, if you accidentally break your toy as an adult, it’s a bummer, but it’s not that big a deal because you’ve probably experienced much worse. For a kid, though, breaking a toy is (hopefully) one of the worst things that’s ever happened!
On top of that, up until a certain age, kids are operating under the “egocentric” view of the world. That means that they’re constantly trying to figure out how they fit into the world and what the world thinks of them. Or, more simply, “Everything that happens means something about me.”
So, for example. Let’s say you’re 4 years old, and you have a great relationship with your parents. Dad has to go away on a trip for two weeks, and you miss him a lot. Mom has this awesome idea to write a story about an adventure you want to take with him when he gets back. You work hard on it for two weeks, and you’re just so proud of it and you can't wait to show him! The night comes, and your mom lets you stay up until he gets home at midnight. He walks through the door and you shout “Daddy!” and run to give him the biggest hug ever! And then you run and get your story to read with him, and he says, “Oh, sweetheart. I’m so sorry. Daddy’s too tired. Maybe tomorrow.” Well, as adults, we can recognized that Dad is jet-lagged and exhausted, but how does your 4-year-old self react? Let’s look at the BITES: The Belief of “He doesn’t want me”; the Image of him yawning; the Thought of “I did something wrong” or “I’m in the way”; the Emotions of intense sadness, rejection, etc..; and the Sensation of maybe being really tired but flushed from the embarrassment. Well, sounds pretty overwhelming, right? Which means that box is going to trip your security guard's alarm because it’s a perceived threat to your social safety (rejected by parent), which means that box is probably going to get stuck.
TRAUMA AND THE WANTED POSTERS
And when something gets stuck like this, it gets stuck along with all the emotional charge and negative beliefs about yourself that are present in that moment. So the security guard looks at all this information related to this thing that he found to be threatening and makes the following calculation: “This stuff right here was really bad, and the reason it was so bad is that it took me by surprise. I can’t let myself be surprised by that again, so I need to be on the lookout for signs that it’s happening again so that I can get ahead of it next time.” He then takes that data and kind of makes a “police sketch” of the moment, and then he pins it to the wall by that lever, where it now functions as a “WANTED” poster. Now, every box that comes into your system will be scanned for overt threats, yes, but your security guard is also going to compare it to the wanted poster on the wall. And now, every moment that looks a liiiittle too much like that Wanted poster is going to cause your security guard to be on alert, because there's a chance that traumatic event is about to happen again.
For instance, let’s say you fast-forward 3 years from that rejection from Dad, and you’re asking a friend from school if they want to play after school. They say, “I can’t… I’ve got piano practice”. Not a huge deal, right? But for this person, that rejection is probably going to remind their security guard of that Wanted poster, so the reaction is more likely to be a self-deprecating, “It’s ok. Nobody ever wants me around anyway.”
Put another way, when something happens that activates an old traumatic experience (when your security guard freaks out about a Wanted poster), it can feel like that old information is happening all over again, along with the thoughts, feelings, and sensations that were part of that experience at the time it originally happened. And because it feels like it's happening again, you're probably going to lean towards making the same sorts of decisions you did at the time that event actually did happen, which may not be helpful in your current situation.
EMDR + AIP = TRAUMA RESOLUTION AND HEALING
Whew. So that's the Adaptive Information Processing model, and how things work... and don't work. So where does EMDR come in? Well, you have this "stuck" information that never quite made it up to the processing area to get sorted out in REM sleep. Especially in the SAFE (Somatic and Attachment Focused Model), through some investigative questioning, we identify the root of your current issues and the memories that worked together to lay the foundation for your current issues. And because there are no "time and date" stamps on these memories yet (and they're stuck in the part of your brain that can't tell time and can't tell the difference between "similar" and "same"), your system gets confused and reacts as if those events are happening now, or are about to happen. All we do from here is essentially "reverse-engineer" REM sleep; we move your eyes back and forth (or any other kind of left/right stimulation, like tapping on knees), which gets your brain talking to itself like it does during REM sleep (but you're awake!). This spurs your brain to take the information you're currently focused on (the negative memory) and sort it out like it originally would have if the situation hadn't been so overwhelming at the time. In our warehouse example, those stuck boxes are now being collected and taken to the Processor. The security guard sees that pile of stuck boxes being worked through, thinks, “Oh! I guess I don’t need to worry about that anymore!” and tears down the Wanted poster from the wall that corresponded with that particular event.
And thus, the foundation of negativity that everything's built on gets busted up, and the unhelpful beliefs about yourself aren't running the show anymore. Because when that security guard turns around to compare a new box to those Wanted posters, they’re gone, so there's nothing to freak out about, and there’s no anxiety or stress. Also, your system now has access to all that useful information that was out of reach, which means you’ll have a better perspective on your past and present, as well!