The winter after my mother died, I discovered an unexpectedly anesthetizing new pleasure: Fixer Upper.
I’d never watched renovation shows before; as a freelance writer in New York, the prospect of owning a house (let alone having spare funds to give it a makeover) seemed as likely as a trip to the moon. But that winter, grieving my mom, I was depressed, frayed, and fragile—a broken Metrocard machine was enough to trigger my fight-or-flight response. I dragged myself through each day feeling like that Celeste Roberge sculpture and then, most nights, collapsed on the couch to watch back-to-back episodes of Fixer Upper.
I was transfixed by attractive-yet-accessible couple Chip and Joanna Gaines as they transformed underwhelming homes into light-filled Architectural Digest spreads. And only later did my Fixer Upper fixation make sense. At its core, the show is about what I believed I had lost: the capacity to change, to mend, to rebuild. I eventually got those things back, and I credit EMDR therapy.
Meet EMDR Therapy
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing is a technique originally developed to treat PTSD. It’s now also used for conditions including anxiety, trauma, and addiction. Here’s how it works: The patient relives a traumatic memory—it could be a car accident, a sexual assault, or a bad break-up—while the therapist guides the patient’s attention from left to right. The patient may hold alternating buzzers in their hands, listen to audio tones, or watch the therapist’s fingers move back and forth (this process is called bi-lateral stimulation).
EMDR is a relatively new therapy (it was discovered in the late 1980s by Dr. Francine Shapiro) and research is ongoing to explain exactly how and why combining a traumatic memory with bi-lateral stimulation works. But the thought is that EMDR helps to properly process and store the paralyzing memory. Studies have shown that after a number of EMDR sessions (it might be only a handful, or more than 20), the majority of patients experience less acute mental and physical distress when recalling the memory. The memory, of course, will always be there, but post-treatment it’s less likely to pop up in spontaneous, debilitating ways—like via flashbacks or nightmares—or lead to anxiety, insomnia, or depression. It’s also not uncommon for a patient to glean profound personal insights through EMDR.
Emily Levin, LCSW, a psychotherapist practicing in Manhattan and Brooklyn, uses EMDR with most of her patients, and she has seen it dramatically improve their lives. “EMDR helps the brain understand the traumatic experience is in the past, not the present, that the person is safe now,” Levin said. “A lot of patients say that after EMDR, the trauma feels distant. They don’t feel close to it anymore.”
Levin has used this technique to help clients heal from deeply traumatic experiences, but she has also found it to be highly effective in treating generalized anxiety. “EMDR not only soothes the nervous system, so that anxiety decreases,” Levin said, “but it can also help the patient get to the root of what is causing their anxiety.”
What It Feels Like
The EMDR experience will be different for everyone, but here’s how a session goes for me: On the couch in my therapist’s office (Joanna Gaines would appreciate the efforts at ambience—a salt lamp and some succulents—but would resent the lack of wainscoting), she asks me to conjure the memory. She asks me to describe it, how emotionally distressed I feel on a scale of 1 to 10, where in my body I feel the distress. She asks if I remember the “negative belief” I hold based on the trauma—for example: “bad things happen out of the blue”—and the “positive belief” I want to replace it with, which might be “I am safe.”
I put on headphones, close my eyes, and listen to a whooshing sound going from one ear to the other, which reminds me of the ocean. The memory becomes vivid in my mind, like a movie. After a minute or so, the sound stops. My therapist asks what I’m thinking. I tell her, then close my eyes and the sound returns. This is repeated about 8 to 10 times, each thought leading me deeper into a mental maze. It’s kind of like a scavenger hunt, only less whimsical.
EMDR is intense, especially at first. Going back to the moment my mom died was like unlocking the door to a basement of horrors I’d been too frightened to enter. The grief felt fresh, raw; tears rolled down my face, my chest heaved. But even if a session was difficult, the sense of release and relief afterwards was worth it. Session by session, my distress reduced, until recalling the memory made me feel very sad, but otherwise provoked little response in my body. In my daily life, I began to experience less dark moods, panic attacks, and preoccupation, generally, with the traumatizing memories around my mother’s death. I’ve since moved on to process other past traumas I’d never dealt with that had been manifesting in subtle but destructive ways.
Unlike on Fixer Upper, when it comes to mental health, there is no big reveal, no ta-da moment. It’s never just one thing that leads to real, lasting change. Maintenance will always be required. But EMDR has enabled me to address my deeper traumas instead of rearranging the furniture to hide the cracks they’re causing. Now that I’ve strengthened the foundation, I can build.
EMDR should only be practiced with a trained mental health professional, and after an assessment to determine whether it is suitable for you. For more information on EMDR, visit the American Psychological Association website or the EMDR Institute website. To find a therapist near you, you can search the directory on Psychology Today.
Graphics by Coco Lashar.