Uncovering Hidden Associations: An Inside Look at an EMDR Session Susan Overhauser, PhD

One of the benefits of Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy is its ease at unveiling hidden associations between current difficulties and life events from our past. Here, I want to share an inside glimpse of an EMDR session to elucidate how intertwined our day-to-day reactions are with past life events. The session occurred near the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020.

The client came in with a great fear of and anxiety about the new coronavirus (COVID-19). As a health reporter, he had access to more information than most, and this information made him truly afraid of a global pandemic. He also had ongoing issues with his own health, resulting in a sense that he could not maintain a healthy, vibrant state of being for very long.

Together, we worked on both the specific fear of the coronavirus and general concerns about health issues. His fear about the coronavirus was slightly lower than it had originally been. In a prior session, we had identified a benefit of being sick in the client’s childhood. When he was sick as a boy, his otherwise angry and caustic mother would become calm and caring. Thus, as a child, being sick meant being safe. It is probably in part due to this pattern in his childhood that he has had a propensity to experience physical ailments regularly as an adult.

EMDR processing includes periods of bilateral stimulation in between segments of talking to allow the individual’s natural associative process to take place. Typically, the bilateral stimulation is provided by asking the client to follow the therapist’s hand (or wand, in my case) as it moves from left to right repeatedly. It is thought that the eye movements of EMDR stimulate a kind of brain activity similar to that of REM sleep when life’s events are consolidated and made sense of. In addition to eye movements, bilateral stimulation can happen via tapping or alternating audio stimuli.

We began the reprocessing segment by having the client remember an occasion of being sick as a child, remembering exactly how it felt, and even how his boyhood room looked. This was followed by a period of bilateral stimulation . After the BLS, the client identified being sick as a way to have control. It was the only way he had to control his mother’s caustic anger. It allowed him to control how he was being treated. This shows an underlying belief of “I have control by being sick.” This belief became the target for the next series of BLS. He experienced the caustic anger of his mother and noted how he felt he always had to be hypervigilant, always on alert for her temper. He then felt a strong contraction in his solar plexus, connected with fear. He also felt weightless and dissociated. The client began coughing. He realized, “I have to manage how to make mom nice.” Associated with this was a feeling of dread. His mind then went to the plight of those trapped on the cruise ship being quarantined due to the coronavirus. He empathized with the feeling of being trapped, filled with dread, knowing it was just a matter of time before everyone would contract the virus.

The client felt a heavy sadness in his body. He remembered his feelings of wanting to get away from home by going to college, hoping that his life would be totally different (as if college would be a paradise in comparison). However, he continued to get sick two to four times per year in college. He remembered a time as a young adult when he became sick with giardia and lost a considerable amount of weight. A teen accused him of being depressed. This accusation came while a war was happening. He remembered believing, “None of us has the right to be happy as long as there are suffering people in the world.”

He then remembered a terrible bout of pneumonia he suffered through in early adulthood. He was very sick for a very long time. It was terrifying. During , his eye began to twitch involuntarily. He then thought about how when he is actually sick, he drops the emotional fear and focuses on getting better physically bit by bit, just getting through. His associations went back to those who were getting sick with the coronavirus, who were mostly older people; it was not impacting the young much. He was wondering what the world would be like with a lost generation, with youth leading the world.

The client became very sad. He felt he had brought sadness with him as early as birth. He’s not sure where this sadness comes from. He feels a bit out of place in the current world. He has found his place with other Buddhists. Those are his people. He became very sad again. He was anticipating moving to the countryside if the virus came to where he lived, and he would then have to separate from his wife, who refused to go. He imagined saying goodbye to her without knowing if he would see her again. (The client was crying, and his eye was twitching again.) He mused about how quickly a catastrophe could unfold, with no time for real preparations. The client became very scared.

Then, the client recalled an old meeting with a Buddhist Lama. This teacher had just been stung by a wasp, and his lip was very swollen. Despite this, the lama was completely calm and said that the sting wasn’t the wasp’s fault. Because the client recognized that his own anger was often a problem for him, he realized in the session that the lama’s comment about the wasp also applied to him and his tendency to “sting” others. In retrospect, it felt like a kind of absolution: “It’s not your fault,” from which he could then segue to, “It is not my fault.” A sadness welled up. He realized that his mother’s negativity and hostility was not his fault. He had never seriously considered this, that it wasn’t his fault. He felt regret that he didn’t get the message earlier. The client sighed. He realized that the lama was offering him absolution, and he couldn’t accept it at the time. Perhaps he could now. “Accept the absolution.” He realized, “It is not my fault.” After taking this in, he felt intensely good, including in his body. He was in a state of inner joy and well-being and left the session in this state.

While this article does not report a full standard protocol EMDR session, it does show some of the processes that can happen using this modality. The therapy assumes that there is an intrinsic healing drive and that a current adult perspective will naturally help resolve the negative emotions associated with earlier events. When given opportunities to do so, the body, soul, and spirit will bring the individual towards greater health and integration naturally. In this instance, an individual who entered with health anxiety focused on the fear of the coronavirus was able to leave feeling a sense of inner and outer well-being, freed from fear. Anxiety was replaced with confidence. A negative outlook was replaced with a positive outlook. Instead of fear, the client left feeling gratitude, particularly towards his spiritual teacher, whose message he had finally received. The changes from this session did not resolve all of the client’s anxiety, as new news caused recurrent anxiety, but were one major step in a longer therapy towards freedom from fear.

EMDR has its place among integrative therapies, including anthroposophic psychotherapy. It attends to the body, to feelings, and to beliefs, working towards integrating the three soul forces of willing, feeling, and thinking. It carries an attitude of salutogenesis, of bringing health and well-being, understanding that human beings have a natural drive towards health and integration. It is one of several methods of working with the soul to bring greater harmony.

Please note that due to its powerful nature, EMDR should only be used by those trained to use it. It is a therapy that requires dedication from the client, skill from the practitioner, and a series of sessions to work. Like many types of therapies, EMDR helps bring unconscious or subconscious associations or material into consciousness. This needs to be done with care. When this is done properly, the light of consciousness shines onto events in ways that release us from the bondage of the past. The involvement of the individual’s consciousness is an essential element for therapies that are truly appropriate for modern times. In the light of consciousness, events, including traumatic ones, are digested, as it were, and the links to bodily sensations, feelings, and beliefs are made clear. Then, the individual is freed to create new associations for the future.

While EMDR has numerous scientific articles attesting to its effectiveness, no one knows exactly how or why it works. The current theory is that the bilateral stimulation affects both sides of the brain alternately, and that the effort to track the BLS taxes working memory and encourages unconscious associations to arise, while maintaining an awake adult consciousness, allowing memory reconsolidation in the present moment, and resulting in integration. Chronological events and our rational mind are thought to be linked primarily with the left brain. Traumatic events, strong emotions, imagery, and creativity are thought to be linked more with the right brain. One of the hallmarks of highly traumatic events is that they are often re-experienced as if happening in the current time (flashbacks), along with the presence of intrusive imagery and dreams. This is the right brain intruding and firing in concert with the amygdala (the emotional nerve center). When the trauma can be emotionally realized (made real, experienced with emotion in consciousness) and connected to narrative autobiographical time (left brain), the event becomes integrated into our life history and no longer needs to intrude on our consciousness.

According to anthroposophic psychology, memories are stored in the life body, or etheric body, of the human being. This is an energetic body that is closely associated with the physical body but consists of life energy (or chi, as the Chinese call it) rather than physical matter itself. The nerve cells are simply used as mirrors to reflect our thoughts, feelings, and sense impressions back to us. Each sense organ utilizes life energy to sense what is out there in the world. During visual BLS, the etheric streams that exit the eyes essentially stir up the etheric body, allowing associated thoughts, feelings, and images to come into consciousness. Similar stimulation occurs with tapping or audio.

EMDR requires what is called dual focus or dual consciousness. The client is asked to remember an event (sensations, feelings, cognitions) while tracking the bilateral stimulus. This requires a degree of focus. In anthroposophic terminology, it is the spirit or “I” of the human being that manages consciousness and attention. Consciousness itself is carried by what anthroposophy calls the astral body. Thus, EMDR processing involves a coordinated working together of all four sheaths of the human being: the physical body with its muscle tension, rhythms, and nerves; the etheric body with its sensory streams and holding of memories; the astral body, which carries consciousness and the three soul forces of thinking, feeling, and willing; and the spirit or “I” of the human being, who is the one who knows and realizes.

Through the help of EMDR or trauma therapy, it becomes possible to fully integrate traumatic experiences into the time stream of one’s biography, typically along with a greater sense of the meaning of the experience and a greater equanimity around the events, feelings, and beliefs connected to the event. Successful processing often ends with somatic ease, greater peace in the life of feeling, and positive cognitions about self and world. EMDR is a truly integrative therapy, as it helps all four sheaths of the human being to work together and be grounded in time and space. This is also the aim of all true anthroposophic therapy. When all our sheaths work together in a well-integrated way, we are more whole and able to be fully present and active in life.

BIO: Susan Overhauser, PhD, is a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice in the San Francisco Bay Area of California, providing psychotherapy to children, teens, adults, couples, and groups. Susan is a core faculty member of the Association for Anthroposophic Psychology (AAP) and lectures internationally. She is certified in EMDR, anthroposophic psychotherapy, sensorimotor psychotherapy, and in the treatment of trauma and dissociation. Together with colleagues, Susan recently inaugurated the first North American program leading to certification in anthroposophic psychotherapy through AAP.