My experience with EMDR as an autistic young person

After a prolonged blogging dry spell brought on by the torture of lockdown, I am back in business with my writing. This time around I will recount what EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprocessing) has done for me.

What is EMDR

First of all, what is EMDR? The following description is adapted from the EMDR Association UK

EMDR is a therapy used to help people recover from distressing events and the problems they have caused, like flashbacks, upsetting thoughts or images, depression or anxiety. It is recognised by NICE as a treatment for PTSD. The World Health Organisation also recognises it as an effective treatment for children.

Trauma can cause a person to be overwhelmed and unable to fully process what is going on. The traumatic memory seems to become “stuck” and remains very intense and vivid, causing them to continually re-live the experience in their mind, along with the full force of the distress. EMDR aims to help the brain “unstick” and reprocess and desensitise the memory, so they can think about the event without experiencing such strong feelings.

It works by recalling the traumatic event while also moving their eyes from side to side, hearing a sound in each ear alternately, or feeling a tap on each hand alternately. These side-to-side sensations seem to effectively stimulate the “stuck” processing system in the brain so that it can reprocess the information more like an ordinary memory, reducing its intensity.

EMDR is a complex therapeutic process that should always be delivered by properly trained therapists.

EMDR Association UK has a fuller explanation

What has EMDR done for me?

Having gone to a local EMDR practitioner every Saturday since January, I can safely say that EDMR has worked wonders for me. It’s being able to do things like this blogging that makes going to a particular specialist mental health service for adults with autism worth dragging myself through. For those of you not familiar with my previous posts, I have written here about my awful experience of the LANC service, to which I was referred via adult mental health.

Needs around emotional wellbeing are specified in my Education, Health and Care Plan. When the LANC service couldn’t meet these needs, my Mum was able to get a personal health budget (PHB) to meet these needs. Initially, the PHB was for RDI provision, which I have previously written about here. As a result of not being able to take part in my bespoke education package during much of lockdown as well as the ongoing uncertainty it created, my mental wellbeing took a dip. I was unable to take part in the RDI, because for the most part the meetings with my RDI consultant take place virtually and I needed to be face to face with someone who could help me. Zoom doesn’t work for me ☹

I used my PHB to fund trips to the EMDR sessions, which consisted of training that stimulated both sides of the brain to work together in turning obsessive thoughts into long term memory.

Hosted by the dependable psychotherapist, Patrick Melvin, EMDR has defused and diminished traumas I’ve carried for years. I targeted one memory of a shallow, bitter, resentful woman I knew when I was younger who abused my trust and treated me badly. I found that spending a sizeable 40 minutes with EMDR exercises could heal that memory and I also used the technique on other negative memories.

Philip Milburn and furry friend
Philip Milburn and furry friend

How did it work?

The instruction was to pat my left knee with my left hand, and right knee with the right hand, whilst talking about the memory. This compelled both sides of the brain to work and by bringing the trauma onto the radar with the brain working harder, the trauma faded. I had to repeat this a few times, but it worked well for me.

My golden rule is that if you are going to use this tactic, do not stop when you feel a slight reduction in the memory you targeted - continue to strike it while it is down or else it will come back after a day or two. Like pulling out a dandelion - make sure to take out the root so it can't grow back.

At home, after some well-coordinated exercises and determined effort, I managed to knock the trauma down for four days and counting - a record high. I cannot put across enough the importance of working on the same issue heavily, do not ease up when the first sign of recovery starts to show, hit the memory without mercy.

The effects of my EMDR

Overall, I found using EMDR to be highly effective in reducing ruminative thinking and negative memories and wish I’d had access to it sooner. 

Aside from the core EMDR there are many other methods and techniques offered that can help prevent rumination. I’d recommend trying at least twice with EMDR.

Thanks for reading my latest work, I intend to write more often with lockdown fading away.

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Philip Milburn

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