EMDR In Action – Bessel Van Der Kolk And ‘Digesting’ The Imprint Of The Trauma

by Penny Boreham

Putting EMDR in Action 

Bessel Van der Kolk

Bessel Van der Kolk

Two weeks ago in our blog, “The beginnings of EMDR”, we explored the origins of the groundbreaking ‘Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing Therapy’ which was developed by Dr Francine Shapiro twenty seven years ago and which we use as one part of our programme at Khiron House.

Over the last three decades, since Dr Shapiro’s discovery, EMDR has been shown to be hugely beneficial in treating psychological trauma. The purpose of this therapy (which involves alternating left-right stimulation of the brain with eye movements, sounds or taps) is to stimulate frozen or blocked information processing.

We have an information processing system in the brain that is supposed to be geared to digest experience – to make sense of experiences and make sure that we store (and incorporate into memory) what is useful and discard what is not. However, when we are intensely disturbed, our processing system becomes overwhelmed, and the traumatic experience can be inappropriately stored in episodic memory, which is the category of long-term memory that involves the recollection of specific events, situations and experiences. However, through EMDR, the appropriate links can be remade and these memories can be shifted to our narrative and verbal memory.

Bessel Van der Kolk and the ‘weird, new thing’

The psychiatrist, Bessel Van der Kolk, has been a very influential figure in the world of trauma therapy since the 1970’s, and he gives a revealing account of his first encounter with EMDR.

Dr Van der Kolk, now the director of the Trauma Centre in Boston, describes how he was sceptical of EMDR at the beginning of the 1990’s, and remembers how it was held in low esteem by many of his research colleagues. However, he had even then observed how some of his own trauma patients had experienced some good effects from it. He recalls “they came back and told me how supportive our therapy relationship had been, but that EMDR had done more for them in a few sessions than therapy with me had done in four years”.

So, Van der Kolk decided to go and see for himself what “this weird, new thing was all about“and he wasn’t particularly complimentary about the training – “It felt too packaged, too much like a Billy Graham revival-type thing.

The loss of a clinic

However, as part of the training programme, he had to experience the treatment. Dr Van der Kolk had recently, in 1991, been upset by the closing of his Trauma Clinic at the Massachusetts General Hospital.  It had ostensibly been closed for budgetary reasons, but he suspected that his high-profile advocacy of clergy-abuse victims was linked to its closure.   The sudden closing of the Trauma Clinic was the focus for his EMDR session.

During the session, I was fascinated by all the different images from my early childhood that made their way very rapidly through my consciousness, and which seemed somehow related to the loss of my clinic. It was like the kind of hypnopompic experience you have when you first begin to wake in the morning, with ideas coming and going and being forgotten before you really wake up.”

Significantly, afterwards he felt as if “something had been processed and left behind”. He then had to practise giving EMDR to another student.This practice student was another clinician who only gave Bessel Van der Kolk very limited information as to what he wanted to work on, simply saying that it was “some very tough stuff between me and my dad when I was little.”

Van  der Kolk remembers this practice partner being “overtly hostile and uncommunicative throughout the session” and repeatedly telling Bessel Van der Kolk that he didn’t really want to share what he was upset about.

As a result, Van der Kolk was “totally in the dark about what was going on inside the person he was trying to ‘help’ with the EMDR“.   But once again, Bessel Van der Kolk was fascinated by how, at the end of the session, the man looked very much relieved of his distress.

The revelation of EMDR

In the dialogue, after the session, the practice partner reportedly told Dr Van der Kolk – “I’d never refer a patient to you” to which Van der Kolk replied “Oh, why is that?” and was told “I really hated the way you dropped your fingers at the end of each movement!”

However, when Van der Kolk asked him about his original problem he responded “Oh, I feel I completely resolved the issue with my dad.”

For Dr Van der Kolk this was a revelation: “This guy didn’t trust me. We didn’t have a warm relationship.  I never knew anything about what was bothering him yet he seemed to have processed whatever it was he needed to take care of”

From that moment onwards, Bessel Van der Kolk felt convinced that EMDR was a crucial therapy for helping people ” digest” the imprint of the trauma.

This is part of our series of blogs which are telling the story of trauma treatment, how it has developed and is still developing every day. In this series our expert practitioners will be sharing their knowledge with you, we will be finding out what recent scientific breakthroughs are teaching us all about the nervous system, and we will be keeping you in touch with the latest news about the life transforming therapies that are becoming more sophisticated and responsive every day.

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