How my brain healed itself

I had the most incredible experience the other day. It felt almost other-worldly. I feel like superwoman.

I’m a Cognitive Behavioural therapist (CBT), but two weeks ago I started some training, to learn how to do a different type of therapy – Eye Movement Desensitisation and Re-processing (EMDR). It’s a different type of therapy for trauma.

I was ambivalent beforehand. Many of my patients have experienced multiple traumas (things like human trafficking into prostitution, torture and extreme domestic violence), but we’ve been using trauma-focused CBT, and it’s been working well.

I’m such a CBT therapist. I think in CBT techniques and I use it on myself all the time. If you peeled back my skin, what look like veins are actually just the outlines of Thought Diaries.

 

So I felt like sure, I love learning new things (and days out of the office), but when am I going to use it? Why would I not just use CBT?

Part of the training was to practise EMDR on each other. We had to choose traumatic memories from our lives to work on, which were not too distressing. On a scale of 0-10, where 0 is no distress and 10 is the most distressing as it could possibly be, ideally the memories we would work on would cause us 5/10 distress now.

Beforehand, I talked to my supervisor at work about it. We agreed my ex-boyfriend’s death would be too distressing for that kind of training situation, but my memories of my abusive ex might fit. I don’t feel that distressed when I remember it, but I haven’t processed it that much – I’ve just blocked it out.

EMDR is based on the idea that your brain knows how to heal itself but sometimes it needs a nudge in the right direction.

Just like your skin knows how to heal itself; I’m very clumsy and often get cuts and scrapes when cooking and things, but a few days later I think wow, I can’t believe that cut, that seemed so deep, is nearly gone!

But sometimes, my skin needs a nudge in the right direction – a plaster, a blob of germolene or even to dig out some grit or glass – then it takes care of itself.

It’s the same with your brain. Most of the time when we experience traumatic incidents, our brains heal themselves and process the memory in a helpful way, and we don’t go on to develop PTSD. Our brains know how to look after us.

However, it’s easy for the traumatic memory to get stuck. To heal, the traumatic memory needs to get connected to helpful, adaptive information, and it needs to get turned from sensory information into a memory that feels like it’s in the past.

If you went to the zoo and a tiger escaped and attacked you, you’d probably be shaken up.

Afterwards, the traumatic memory might get processed into a less sensory format, and get connected to helpful information. It would go from being an intense, vivid memory where you can still feel the tiger’s claws piercing your skin, and the smell of its breath as it opened its jaws, and the sound of other people screaming, into an autobiographical, narrative memory like “one time I went to the zoo and a tiger escaped and attacked me but I survived.”

It might get connected to other information like times you went to the zoo and that didn’t happen, and facts about the series of events that allowed the tiger to escape.

You would end up feeling it was a terrifying thing that happened, but believing you’re broadly safe now. You might even feel you’d be safe if you went back to the zoo, although you might not fancy it.

However, the memory might be so traumatic, your brain gets overwhelmed when it tries to process it, so it gets stuck as very sensory information – you might have flashbacks and feel the tiger’s claws on you again and again. You might feel like you’re still in constant danger, so you can’t sleep or concentrate, and feel jumpy all the time. You might avoid everything that reminds you of tigers and panic every time you see something in leopard print (I actually do get that, but I just really fucking hate animal print).

EMDR helps the brain to process the traumatic memory. (Trauma-focused CBT is based on the same principles but you process the memory a different way.)

It has been researched thoroughly and we know it works, but we’re not certain how.

A big part of EMDR is activating the trauma memory while the therapist quickly moves their fingers back and forth, and you follow their fingers with your eyes.

It might be related to what’s happening when you’re dreaming; dreaming seems like our brains’ way of processing memories and information, and we mainly dream in Rapid Eye Movement sleep. It helps the memory to get processed and connected to helpful information.

So, we got into pairs. I went with the lady who had been sitting next to me. Normally I find other people on training really annoying – there’s always someone who asks stupid questions right before a break and my tolerance for stupidity seems especially low when I’m on a course. However, no one on this training annoyed me that much.

The girl I was in a pair with seemed really nice. She had cool nail varnish. She was what my mum would call ‘unassuming’.

The first part of the process is to identify the target memory.

Although my relationship with Matthew lasted 3 years, I had to choose a specific memory to work on, and then a specific moment from that memory. I chose the argument we had which lead to our breakup.

Ideally, you need a still image from the memory, still enough that it’s like a photo. The moment I chose was me in the kitchen, trying to close the door because I was scared, and him standing in the doorway, shouting, not letting me close the door.

Then, the therapist helps you figure out the negative belief about yourself, that this memory causes you.

The negative belief is usually about not being safe, not being in control, not being good enough, or being to blame for the trauma.

I had assumed the worst thing about that memory was not feeling safe. The whole reason I knew the relationship was unhealthy was that I didn’t feel safe when we argued. I genuinely didn’t know if he would hurt me and I was scared.

But then it turned out the worst thing was not that after all. The worst thing was feeling like it was my fault. My negative belief was “I deserved it because I’m a bad person”.

Then, together, you work out what you would like to believe, when you remember the trauma. Mine was “It wasn’t my fault. I’m an OK person.”

Then, the therapist asks about the emotions the memory causes you (fear, shame) and the physical sensations (tense muscles, holding my breath).

Then, you activate the memory – you think of the image – and follow the therapist’s fingers. She quickly moved her fingers back and forth, and I had to follow them with my eyes.

As soon as you think of the image from the trauma memory, and follow the therapist’s fingers, your mind starts going to all different places. You might think about other moments from the trauma, other traumas, emotions, physical sensations, other non-traumatic memories, facts that you know. You just let your brain go wherever it wants.

It’s like you’re on a train. The image from your trauma is the station at the start, then, everything that happens next is scenery you can see from the train. You just notice it, but don’t judge it or question it or try to figure out its significance.

Usually, the therapist says little or nothing while moving their fingers, so you can focus on following them and going wherever your brain takes you.

After a certain number of eye movements, the therapist asks what’s happening now for you. Then, they’ll say “OK, go with that,” and then start another set of eye movements, which each last maybe a minute or so.

So, I brought the image to mind. I was back in my kitchen, trying to close the door. I felt scared. The fear felt very physical, even though it happened 18 months ago.

After the first set of eye movements, she asked what was happening for me now.

“I’m remembering how the argument started that day.”

“OK. Go with that.”

So then I was sitting on the sofa that day, telling him about my day at work, and sighing, and he got annoyed that I sighed.

Then she did another set of eye movements.

“What’s happening now?”

“I’m remembering a different argument, two years earlier, where I lay on the bed and he stood over me, kicking the mattress.”

“OK, go with that.”

I stayed in this argument for a while, especially where I was crying on the bed and he was having a cigarette outside and I just couldn’t stop crying.

“What’s happening now?”

“Now we’re having a different argument and he’s banging his head against the cupboard door and I’m trying to stop him but he’s shouting at me to get back on the bed.”

Basically, you keep going, wherever your brain takes you. Your brain knows where to go.

My mind went to:

  • other arguments where I felt scared
  • him throwing me out of the flat, the night of the target memory
  • waiting for Tess to come and pick me up, and a man asking me if I was OK because I was crying
  • Tess and her boyfriend being really nice to me that night
  • speaking to my mum on the phone the next day
  • speaking to my friends over the next few days
  • the thought “all those people who supported me didn’t think I’m a bad person”
  • memories of times he lost with his temper with other people
  • other boyfriends who didn’t make me feel like that when we argued

Then a thought came into my head:

“It wasn’t your fault”.

It was like God had typed that thought in Times New Roman into my head, in white text, on a black background, 72 point.

I felt a huge sense of relief gush into me. In a few minutes I had gone from nearly crying to grinning.

When the therapist notices that, twice in a row, they’ve asked what’s happening and it’s something neutral (e.g. “I’m wondering if your hand is tired” or something positive (“it wasn’t my fault”; “I am safe now”), it means you’ve reached the end of a ‘channel’.

Then, you go back to the initial image and think of it again, and those physical sensations come rushing back, and your brain takes you down a different path of thoughts, memories and feelings, to heal itself further.

When you’ve gone down several different channels, and the therapist notices it isn’t causing you much distress to think of the target memory anymore, they ask you to rate your distress out of 10.

If it’s not 0, they’ll ask you what’s making it still more than 0 (e.g. “I can still feel tension in my shoulders”) and then they do another set of eye movements working on that.

Next, you revisit the positive belief you came up with earlier, and see if still fits. Sometimes, something better has come up during the eye movements.

This happened for me. My original positive belief, was “It wasn’t my fault. I’m an OK person.” But then, during the eye movements, the memories of our relationship and arguments allowed me to reflect on how I behaved. Actually, I’m proud because I behaved with dignity. I never did anything that went against my principles, like calling him names back or trying to hurt him. I put up with it for longer than I should because I empathised with his struggles.

So, instead of “It wasn’t my fault, I’m an OK person”, my new belief was “It wasn’t my fault. I am strong and kind.” The therapist checks how much you believe it, and does another set of eye movements to strengthen the belief.

Then, the therapist gets you to close your eyes and scan your body for any residual negative physical sensations.

Then, it’s pretty much finished, and they tell you that the processing might continue after the session, so you might get new insights, dreams, thoughts or memories, or it might happen outside of your awareness.

So, I felt amazing. I felt like a weight had been lifted. I hadn’t even realised I thought it was my fault, but now I had a very different perspective. Then, after a quick break, we had to swap over, and I was the therapist. I won’t say too much about my partner’s traumatic memory, as it doesn’t feel right, but it seemed to work similarly well.

Then, we found out that the next day we had to work on another memory with a different partner.

I didn’t know what to choose.

But I kind of did.

To go back at stage, this was day two of the training. On day one, I’d had a different kind of epiphany.

When we were just learning the theory of EMDR and trauma, the teacher said something that really struck a chord with me. He said that sometimes, what disrupts the brain from processing a trauma, is having series of smaller traumas after a big trauma.

For example, if someone’s trauma was having a serious industrial accident at work, and then they lost their job, and then their benefits got cut, their threat system would be activated for a prolonged period. It would be harder for the brain to process the memory if they continue not to feel safe.

I thought fuck, that’s exactly what happened with me. 

After my ex-boyfriend’s death, over the next 8 months, I was terrified every time I went into work. Basically, I was a bit crap at my job temporarily. It was hard to concentrate because I was traumatised by the fire and my ex-boyfriend’s death.

I had two jobs at the time. In one job, they expected I wouldn’t be on top form and gave me some different projects and still seemed happy with me.

My other employer didn’t handle it as well as they could. You could say I experienced workplace bullying. The whole reason I moved to London was that I just needed to get the fuck away from that job.

No wonder it was difficult to process the trauma of the house fire and my ex-boyfriend’s death. I didn’t start feeling safe until I moved to London and moved in with Tess, and got a job somewhere nice.

So, on day one of the training, this came up and I thought about it a lot. On the train home, on day one, I thought I saw my old boss from back then. I sat down, on the train, and thought the guy sitting next to me was him. I couldn’t look directly at him, as it would have been weird, socially, to crane my head round to peer at him, but I was sure it was him.

I felt a strong churning in my stomach, but it was over on my left hand side, in my rib cage. I felt like he could probably feel it too, as we were sitting close together. I felt like he was looking at me out of the corner of my eye. I sat reading my EMDR book with trembling hands.

I can’t believe it’s him!

Then, when it was my stop, I had to ask him to let me past, to get off the train. I looked directly at him. It wasn’t him at all! He wasn’t even the same ethnicity – this was an Asian man and my boss was white British.

I couldn’t believe how much it wasn’t him, after all!

I really need to work on this memory, too. 

So, on day two, we did the first EMDR practice, and it blew my mind and massively helped me.

So, on day three, when we had to pick another memory, I knew it had to be about that job.

At first, I thought it might be too difficult, as it’s so connected to the fire, and still thought the fire would be too difficult for a training situation. But then, we learnt you can ‘ring-fence’ a trauma; if you’re working on one trauma, but the person has another trauma, which they aren’t ready to work on yet, you can ring-fence and work around it.

This time I went in a pair with a lady I had talked to quite a lot, in the breaks. We had walked to Waitrose together and I felt like I could trust with her this. She seemed really lovely.

She went first as the patient. Again, it felt like the EMDR went well for her. Then it was my turn.

I explained the situation around the memory.

The target memory was a meeting we had, in which my boss told me there had been negative feedback about my teaching (I was working in a university). A lady from occupational health came with me, and she told me afterwards that she was shocked how that meeting went.

This was meeting was so awful, that afterwards, I came the closest I’ve ever come to the very edge.

I explained I wanted to ring-fence the actual fire and my ex-boyfriend’s death.

The memory of the meeting caused me 8/10 distress now.

My negative belief about myself, related to this memory, is “I’m a failure.”

I wanted to think of the memory and believe “I am good enough.”

The emotions it caused were fear, shame and anger. I felt shaky and my heart raced when I thought of it.

So, I brought the image of the meeting to mind, and she started doing the eye movements, which I followed with my eyes.

It was really hard going back to that meeting.

My mind went to

  • waiting for the meeting to start, terrified
  • after the meeting, crying in my office
  • coming home from the meeting and crying in my flat
  • other meetings we had where awful things happened
  • feeling the churning, on the left, in my ribs again
  • my last day at the university, when the students gave me two bouquets of flowers and a really heartfelt card they’d all signed
  • memories of meeting students I’d taught, over the next few years, and them saying I was their favourite lecturer
  • memories of other people in the department having similar problems
  • people from HR and Occupational Health saying the department had some toxic practices
  • remembering how they were really happy with me in my NHS job at that time
  • the thought “I did OK given the circumstances”
  • the thought “you’re allowed to be a bit crap at your job if your boyfriend’s just died”, which made me laugh

We reached the end of that channel, and went back to the trauma memory. I was conscious my brain did not want to be in that meeting and kept taking me elsewhere.

I thought about more meetings and things that happened at the university. I thought about my boss and started for feel compassion for him.

We reached the end of that channel, I knew I needed to go back to that meeting.

Then it started to get weird. I had images of things that didn’t happen but felt healing to imagine

  • my boss saying “I’m sorry I made it worse”
  • the faces of people from my department saying “it wasn’t you”.
  • an image of my dead ex-boyfriend giving me a massive hug and saying “I’m so sorry you went through this”
  • an image of him standing in our living room, everything fixed after the fire, him looking happy and relaxed
  • present-day-me giving 2012-me a hug, saying “you will get through this”
  • Then I was saying to 2012-me “you did OK, you just needed more support”
  • Then 2012-me was walking up to a meeting with my boss on the 3rd floor, like I used to, feeling like I was going to have a heart attack, but present-day-me was walking with me
  • Then I was back in that meeting but the terrified, meek, small me had a confident me, strutting down the street, superimposed on top
  • Then I was in the meeting but I got up and walked out
  • Then I was in the meeting but it was an oil painting
  • Then I was in a room with that oil painting on my wall and I was OK with it being there
  • Then I decided to chuck the oil painting out of the window
  • The thought “this could have broken me but it didn’t.”
  • memories of driving to London for my interview, and seeing a rainbow
  • memories of the phone call to say I got the job in London
  • memories of driving away from the university for the last time, listening to Sweet Escape by Gwen Stefani
  • neutral memories of the Psychology building – times I went there as a student and thought it was a nice building
  • the thought “it was just a building”
  • the thought “it was just a meeting that didn’t break me”
  • images of the city I lived in and the thought “it was just somewhere I lived.”
  • the thought “I was a good teacher, it was just a really shit time”

It felt like an almost religious, surreal experience. I felt superwoman. Suddenly I could remember that time and not feel scared.

My new belief “I am good enough” felt so much more convincing, now I remembered things like the students being positive about my teaching.

My distress went down from 8/10 to 0.5.

Afterwards, the other therapist and I hugged and I think we’re going to be friends.

All of that with my old job happened in 2012, but every time anyone said the name of the city where it happened, I felt a sense of dread in my body. Now I feel like “I wasn’t very happy when I lived there but it’s probably not a bad place.”

They say that the processing can continue after the session. I can’t tell for certain, because the anniversary of fire came up the following week, and that always makes me feel a whole range of things.

But I have been having random memories pop into my head since the EMDR, like a memory of me being 13, on the German Exchange, and crying because I felt homesick and the Mum of the German family saying “it’s OK to be homesick. We all like you very much.” Who knows if that’s related. I hadn’t thought about it for years but it was a nice memory.

I feel really cheerful at the moment. Maybe I won’t feel so anxious before my next performance review at work. I feel more confident about pursuing another teaching job one day.

I still feel like CBT is my church but I feel evangelical about EMDR now. A lot of the end points of my EMDR could have also come about through CBT, like remembering times that don’t fit with the negative belief, finding an alternative perspective and even the images of an older me intervening. However, the way my brain did it by itself felt particularly visceral and powerful.

I feel like CBT is food and EMDR is sex. When you discover sex, you kind of want to do it all the time, but then you remember you still need to eat.

16 thoughts on “How my brain healed itself

  1. Thank your for that explicit description. It is something I might try for myself. The description of your changing feelings was very helpful especially the one were you stood by the side of your 2012 self. This is avery comforting thought with healing power.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This reminds me of a book I read years ago by Susan Greenfield, about the human brain. She talked a lot about the level of knowledge we have of how the brain really works – that we can see areas light up in response to stimulus, but really beyond that it’s a bit of a mystery. I seem to remember her making the analogy of watching the earth from orbit.

    Liked by 1 person

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