I’d like to start today’s post with a massive thank you – I’ve had so many lovely comments from you all on the Therapy Diaries series and it means so much that you’re enjoying it. At times it hasn’t been easy to write, but I’m hoping to raise awareness on the different types of therapies out there and to highlight the fact that mental health services need more funding. So thanks all 🙂
Anyway, today’s instalment of the Therapy Diaries is all about my experience of EMDR, which I received at university through their student services.
Disclaimer: I am not a mental health professional in any way, so any recommendations are based on my own personal experiences. If you are concerned about yours or a loved one’s mental health you should seek support from the links below. I will include links to further information at the end of this post should you wish to find out more about each type of therapy, but please bear in mind that this post is based on my own experience so will more likely differ from everyone else’s. In addition, I’m looking back over the last 10+ years in some cases, so some procedures mentioned may be different to what they are now.
EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing)
Following on from the results of my failed CBT, I just about scraped through my first and second year of university. There was a lot of crying, a lot of regret and a lot of generally wishing that I was normal enough to be able to make friends easily. By the end of my second year, I had two close friends, and at the beginning of our third year, it felt like things were sort of falling into place. Despite the anxiety and emetophobia still looming over me. One of my friends was also experiencing some mental health issues, so we made a pact that we would both go to the student centre and get ourselves some help.
The student mental health service offered up to six sessions of counselling for free, and the waiting list was almost non-existent. You could book an appointment and that was it. My initial session involved meeting with the mental health worker – we’ll call her C – where I told her about the problems I was facing and how they were impacting me. I explained I had a course of CBT which came to an abrupt end, and I wanted to get to a point where emetophobia no longer controlled my life. I explained the root of my emetophobia (as far as I can remember, a very horrific episode of Rugrats – the one where Angelica tries on Chuckie’s glasses) and she recommended a course of EMDR (eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing).
What it Involves
So, what is EMDR? Eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing is a form of therapy that’s designed to help patients recover from traumatic events. It helps the brain to reprocess traumatic events properly so that they become less distressing. According to the EMDR Association, it’s recognised as a treatment for PTSD by the National Institute of Clinical Excellence (NICE) and the World Health Organisation (WHO), and is also used by the Ministry of Defence as a way of helping service personnel with the condition. In addition, it can also be used to help with conditions such as anxiety or depression, in particular when a traumatic event has been involved. EMDR is also recognised by the WHO as an effective treatment for children and adolescents who have experienced trauma, especially given that children can sometimes find it difficult to engage in talking therapies.
According to the EMDR Association, the treatment goes under the assumption that a person who has experienced a traumatic event has difficulty processing it. The memory of the event is almost “stuck” in the brain, and causes distress and anxiety as a result. The aim of EMDR is to “unstick” these events and process them properly, so that they no longer cause such distress, as well as to desensitise the client to the emotions that come with the memory.
EMDR works by getting the client to relive the traumatic event while at the same time engaging in an additional form of stimulation. This could be moving their eyes from side to side, hearing a sound in each ear alternatively, or alternatively tapping on each hand. The sensations can stimulate the processing system in the brain to unstick the event and process the information as though it was a normal memory, so as to reduce the distressing emotions attached to them.
C seemed to think that the said Rugrats episode could be the ‘traumatic event’ that triggered my emetophobia, so by reducing the distress that it caused, it would hopefully result in it breaking down. First of all, she had me identify a happy memory that would make me feel calm – this would be what I would go to if I found the reliving of other experiences too much. I chose the memory of a video I’d seen on YouTube that I would frequently look at when I needed cheering up. It was this video:
I had to focus on everything about this video. The colours, the sounds, all of it. This would essentially be my happy place. We then picked out a few additional memories that had an impact on the emetophobia – mainly childhood events of vomiting – with the aim of going through the EMDR therapy on each of them. We started off with the initial event – that horrific Rugrats episode that to this day, I still can’t watch. I was given two vibrating thingies – for comedic relief, we’ll call them love eggs – which I would hold in each hand and they’d vibrate alternately. While this was happening, I had to recall every single detail of the event. Colours, sounds, the lot. I had to take myself back to being five years old and off school with tonsillitis watching a show that I hated, purely because Cartoon Network took their decent shows off during school hours. At the end of the session, I would be told to “let it go.” I distinctly remember at the end of that first session feeling as though it had really helped. I felt a shitton of anxiety during the initial phase of reliving it, but by the end of the session, I truly felt as though I had been freed of the distress that came with the memory.
We went through a couple of weekly sessions looking at different memories, but one session in particular stands out, and that was around my fourth or fifth. In all honesty, I don’t remember the memory that I was reliving, but I remember C telling me to “let it go” repeatedly. In my mind, I was quite confident that I had, but she wasn’t convinced. I eventually admitted that I was struggling to let it go, and when she asked why, I burst into tears and responded with “BECAUSE I CAN’T.” Literally the only time I’ve ever cried during therapy.
One thing I haven’t mentioned? This all happened around the time of me writing my dissertation. What was my dissertation on?
Of course, it was emetophobia.
I chose my dissertation topic on the basis that it was highly under researched and that I wanted to raise some awareness, but the main reason was because I had lived with it myself for so many years and I wanted to learn more about it. Since the age of five, emetophobia had been a part of me, and at the age of twenty I had no idea how to live without it, so the idea of “letting it go” was fucking terrifying, which seemed to be the reason why I was resisting. The session overran because I was in such a state, and I’m not entirely sure how I managed to sit through an afternoon of lectures after that, but somehow I managed.
Honestly, I don’t remember much about my final session. I know we didn’t do any of the “reprocessing” – we just spoke about what I’d learned during my sessions and what I needed to work on for the future. We established that this was something I needed to address when writing the reflection part of my dissertation, and when the time was right, I would speak to my GP and sort out some further support. Spoiler alert – I didn’t. Not for quite a while, anyway.
- I was seen very quickly compared to the waiting lists that you’re faced with on the NHS. Overall I think I waited around 2 weeks to get an appointment.
- The counselling service that the university provided was completely free, which was ideal given that I didn’t have the money to pay for any private sessions.
- Overall the service was really easy to access. We were made aware of the student mental health services at the very beginning of university, and it was simply a case of heading to the student centre and asking if you could make an appointment. There was no need for a referral from your GP, no assessments or forms to fill in, you literally just made the appointment and you were all set.
- C taught me a few techniques that I still use to this day when it comes to managing my anxiety. The first is by alternatively tapping on something with your hands, similarly to how the love eggs were used. It gives your brain something to focus on and every time I’ve used it, it’s really worked to reduce the anxiety. The second is to just simply acknowledge it whenever you’re feeling anxious. Don’t try to mask it, just think “I’m feeling anxious, but I’m okay and I can handle this.” Again, it’s quite a basic thing, but it’s surprisingly useful.
- There was a maximum of six sessions – no ifs, no buts. I feel given my breakdown towards the end of my treatment, I may have benefitted from a few more, but rules are rules. I guess that’s why it was so quick to get seen though.
- While the desensitisation to past events was useful, similar to the CBT, I feel being desensitised to past events isn’t particularly useful when it comes to dealing with incidents in the present day.
- It was very difficult coming out of each session and then having to go to seminars (which I hated anyway – group work and all that) – not specifically an issue with the service, but even so, it wasn’t ideal.
- While my emetophobia was particularly bad during my last year of uni, I think the main factor causing the decline in my mental health was uni itself. I’ve spoken numerous times about how I didn’t have the conventional university experience and that I didn’t particularly enjoy it, and I think overall, that was the underlying issue that needed dealing with at the time.
Overall, despite the huge meltdown towards the end of the treatment, my experience of EMDR was a positive one. I feel had the length of sessions on offer been longer, I would have had more of a chance to explore things further. While the EMDR therapy certainly didn’t cure the emetophobia, it helped reduce some of the feelings around my worst experiences with it. While I don’t think it was necessarily the right option for me treatment wise, I would certainly say it was useful in dealing with the emotions that came with certain events in the past, and I can see why it’s such a useful form of treatment for PTSD.
Additional Support and Information
The following contact details are based within the UK. If you live outside of the UK and need mental health support, CALM has a list of international organisations that you can get in touch with.
Mental health support and information. Use this page if you are in need of urgent help.
Free, confidential mental health support available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Call from the UK for free on 116 123.
Free, confidential support from trained counsellors for anyone under the age of 19. Call from the UK for free on 0800 1111.
Free and confidential crisis support available 7 days a week, from 5pm till midnight. Call from the UK on 0800 58 58 58 or use the free webchat.
An online community focused on raising awareness for PTSD and that provides support for those affected.
Have you had experience with EMDR? Let me know your thoughts in the comments!