How can EMDR therapy help with bereavement?
When someone we are close to dies we may experience a range of emotions which could be described as part of a ‘normal’ reaction such as shock, sadness, feeling numb, anger. This is the expression of grief.
Although most people would say that a bereavement is not something you ‘get over’ as such, in time and with support these feelings may subside to a level that feels manageable.
When the feelings are either very intense and are interfering a great deal with a person being able to manage daily life and this does not improve over time, the person may be said to be suffering from complicated or traumatic grief. In some cases, it may appear that the person is completely numb and is unable to mourn their loss.
This may happen when a loss has been very sudden and unexpected or when the circumstances around the death were traumatic, for example after a lengthy illness, an accident or murder or when the loss is untimely such as the loss of a child. Deaths which are seen as preventable may also be difficult to come to terms with.
It may seem that life has become meaningless and be very hard to imagine a future. There may be a sense of numbness and detachment from life and other people. There may be anger and bitterness over the death.
Counselling using EMDR therapy can be very effective in easing the trauma of grief.
EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprocessing. Francine Shapiro, an American psychologist discovered that by stimulating both sides of the brain by getting people to do side to side eye movements or tapping or sounds in either ear it made it much easier to work with and process traumatic memories.
It is thought that EMDR may work by a similar process to REM or rapid eye movement sleep. Just as sleep helps the brain sort and order our experiences, EMDR helps the brain process things that are overwhelming or traumatic.
Normally the brain (pre-frontal cortex) can process what we see, hear, smell and taste but in some situations the information is passed straight to where the fight, flight or freeze response is initiated (the amygdala). The brain reacts the same to an actual physical threat like a tiger attacking as to an emotional injury to our self, like bereavement and we get a stress response. The trauma can be so overwhelming that the trauma gets ‘locked in’ rather than processed. Any current trigger such as seeing someone who resembles the person who has died or passing the place where they died or even negative thoughts such as ‘it was my fault’ can activate the unprocessed memories and feel as if you are reliving the original trauma.
Often in grief, having negative thoughts, intense physical feelings and being stuck in certain thoughts can be interwoven and EMDR works with all these levels.
EMDR ‘unlocks’ the brain and allows the trauma to be processed. It helps you get to the point where the trauma feels in the past and less painful and emotionally charged but it does not take away the memories of what has happened. The unhelpful thoughts turn into more adaptive, useful ones like ‘I did all I could’.
What happens in the sessions?
Before working on any upsetting material, the counsellor will establish a working relationship with you as it is important you feel safe enough and comfortable with your counsellor first.
The counsellor will ask some questions to get an overview of your life up to now and an outline of why you have come for counselling.
You will learn some self-help techniques to help you cope such as relaxation and visualisation. Once you and your counsellor feel that you are sufficiently prepared, you can then work on a memory with the eye movements or other forms of left-right alternating stimulation, such as sound or taps.
The counsellor will move their fingers rapidly from side to side while you allow your eyes to follow the movement or may gently tap on either side of your knees or on your hands. While following the movements you allow your thoughts to follow where they need to and just let whatever comes up, come up without censoring. You won’t need to talk in depth about the memory.
After each set of eye movements your counsellor will ask you what came to mind or what you noticed during the eye movements. During the eye movements you may experience the event quite intensely to start with, but this generally reduces as the memory is processed with EMDR. You are free to stop at any time, just raise your hand to indicate you want to stop.
Your therapist will continue with the eye movements until any distress is reduced as much as possible. Before the end of the session, your therapist will check in with you about how you are feeling and give you time to feel calm again by using some of the self-help exercises you will have learnt.
The important thing to remember is that it is your own brain that will be doing the healing and that you are the one in control.
The aim is that by the end of therapy you will be able to think of the memories with less distress and they will be less likely to get activated in your day to day life.
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About Barbara Scoltock
Registered MBACP Accredited Counsellor
Member of the EMDR Association Uk & Ireland