What You Should Know Before Starting EMDR
Part Three: Emotional Regulation
In part 1 of this series, I discussed what trauma is, how it develops, and how that translates into negative beliefs. In part 2 I explained how to identify and explore negative beliefs about oneself. Both of these topics are important to know about when starting EMDR (a treatment for trauma developed by Francine Shapiro in the 1980s). As you read the previous sections you may have gotten a sense that these can be heavy, difficult topics to discuss. That is why understanding and regulating your emotional experience is an important part of EMDR.
Everyone has a range of what they can comfortably handle in day to day life before becoming overly stressed. This is called the window of tolerance. When a situation comes up that takes someone outside of that window, they may become anxious, irritable, or have racing thoughts. This is the “fight, flight, or freeze” response talked about in part 1, also called hyperarousal. If a person stays in this highly stressed state without deescalating, they may shut down or feel numb. This is called hypoarousal.
This has several implications for EMDR. Sometimes a person is often right on the edge of their window of tolerance, so it doesn’t take much for them to go into hyperarousal (a “the straw that broke the camel’s back” situation). In that situation, it is important to learn how to take care of one’s self and destress when feeling highly distressed. Processing trauma with EMDR can be a very emotional experience, so it is important to prepare for the experience by getting to a place where you can handle a little additional stress rather than diving in when you are already at the end of your rope. This is a process your therapist can help you with.
No matter the state of your window of tolerance, it is always a good idea to know some emotional regulation skills and have some self-care habits. It is essential before processing trauma, but also important for everyone in everyday life. Develop good self-care habits, both daily or weekly routines and skills to use in the moment when feeling distressed.
Skills for in the moment of distress should include things you can do on your own, such as breathing exercises or journaling. Practice these skills when you are not distressed so they come more naturally to you when you are upset. Some people find it helpful to do things that involve their senses, like wrapping up in a soft blanket, lighting a candle, having a warm cup of tea, or putting on soothing music. It can also be helpful to have a few people in mind who tend to put you at ease or who have soothing presences that you can call.
Daily habits should include time to do things you enjoy or taking a brief moment to check-in with yourself, like taking a walk around the block. Weekly routines can take longer and work around your schedule, like exercise routines or a bubble bath. There are as many ways to do self-care as there are people. Make it unique to you. You can work on finding something that works for you with your therapist.
These emotional regulation skills will assist you as you start your EMDR journey. The information in this 3 part series is not a substitute for communicating with your own therapist, although I hope it will be helpful to help you understand trauma, negative core beliefs, and emotional regulation. It will not be everything you need to know about EMDR treatment, but it is a good jumping off point for further discussion with a mental health professional or for your own research.
This article was provided by RaeAnn Teichert; therapist at the Center for Couples and Families.
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