For the past three months, I’ve been using EMDR therapy to treat my Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. It’s an unusual approach: using the mind to heal the body. But when your disease has no treatment, you go to some weird lengths to heal. Some patients try extreme diets, untested supplements, and even parasites in the pursuit of healing. In comparison, going to therapy seems pretty innocuous.
But many CFS patients have a big issue with this kind of treatment. Our symptoms are so strange that we’re often written off as “crazy” or having a problem that’s “all in our head.” Doing a mind-based therapy feels like admitting insanity.
I get it. I flinched whenever doctors used the word “psychosomatic” in front of me. But eventually, I swallowed my pride and did some research. I discovered the amazing world of neuroscience, which helped me understand my symptoms in a whole new light. And I started HEALING.
How Trauma Makes You Sick
In the last thirty years, there have been several landmark studies about the mind-body connection. Scientists have discovered that trauma and chronic stress can cause measurable changes to the brain. These changes can have profound physical ramifications. A traumatized brain can produce chronic pain, swelling, fatigue, insomnia anxiety, allergies, asthma, autoimmune disease, obesity, gastrointestinal problems, heart disease, and so much more.
Whole books have been written about the science behind this phenomenon. But to summarize, when our brain is constantly or profoundly triggered into a stress response, it sometimes gets stuck there. An adrenaline-fueled stress response is great if there’s a bear chasing you, but it’s terrible for long-term health. Stress hormones tell your body to slow digestion, sleep lightly, increase blood sugar, and be on high alert for potential threats. Years of these messages can cause both physical and mental health problems.
When I developed Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, I was living in a state of constant crisis. I was working crazy hours, getting up all night with a baby, and living in a new country. I also had a history of childhood trauma. So when I learned about how stress and trauma affect the body, I knew that I needed to heal that part of my life.
How EMDR Works
EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. During an EMDR session, a patient will recall an upsetting memory while receiving bilateral stimulation (usually following a finger side to side with their eyes or having the therapist tap their palms).
Scientists are still unsure exactly why this stimulation helps patients process trauma. Some believe that it induces a state similar to REM sleep, which is the body’s natural state for processing memories. At any rate, clinical studies show that it works. Bilateral stimulation decreases patients’ sensitivity to traumatic memories. This allows them to reexamine the memory without becoming overwhelmed. EMDR also helps the brain reprocess the trauma and assess whether or not it’s still an immediate threat. This is key for getting the brain out of a stress response state.
Many patients report almost miraculous results from EMDR. Memories that once haunted patients become distant and harmless. Anxiety-flooded brains become calmer. And what convinced me to try it: severely sick people start healing.
My Experience with EMDR
The first time I sat down in Kristal’s office, I put her in the hot seat. I told her that I’d been to therapy before, and I didn’t love it. I was tired of talking about my past and wanted to do something about it. I wanted to see actual changes in my mental health. Oh, and I had a mysterious illness that was destroying my body. Could she fix that too? To my surprise, she seemed totally unfazed by my requests.
Give me a few months, she said. I think we’ll see big changes.
At that point, doctors were either giving me shrugs or lifelong diagnoses. A few months felt laughable.
How soon can we start? I asked.
We began by constructing a timeline of my illness. We found that my symptoms often started around a stressful or traumatic event. Those would be our EMDR target memories. Kristal suggested we work through them chronologically, because early memories influence our response to everything else.
Releasing Old Emotions
During my first session, Kristal asked me what method of bilateral stimulation I preferred. I felt most comfortable with her tapping my palms. Next, she asked me to think about my target memory and identify the core negative belief that went with it (for example: I am unloved or I can’t do anything right). She also asked me to rate on a scale of one to ten how much that memory bothered me. Since most of my target memories still made me feel anxious or weepy, I usually rated them an 8 or 9.
Next, Kristal had me think about the memory and the negative belief together. I needed to go back to that time and feel what I felt then. She began tapping my palms. The sadness and anger of the memory washed over me, and I started crying. But surprisingly, I wasn’t overwhelmed. I felt a sense of calm and purpose. I hadn’t allowed myself to feel these emotions in the moment, and they needed to be released. It felt good to finally let them out.
After the emotional release, Kristal asked me to become a curious observer of the memory. She would stop tapping every few minutes and ask me what I noticed. It suddenly occurred to me how young I was in the memory. I had often thought of myself as an adult (and expected myself to act like one) even in memories where I was 8 or 9 years old. But now I could see clearly how young and vulnerable I was. This was a huge perspective shift for me, and it allowed me to release decades of shame and hyper-responsibility.
Over the next half hour, I continued to have some major revelations about how the memory had affected my life. By the end of the session, the memory felt smaller and more distant. I had a strong sense that I was an adult now, and even though no one protected me in the memory, I could protect that little girl now. I could release the responsibilities that were heaped on her.
Reframing the Memory
At the end of the session, Kristal asked me to speak out a positive belief (the inverse of the original negative one). She continued tapping while I cemented that positive idea into the old memory. By the end, I felt empowered and almost giddy. When she asked me how disturbing the memory felt now, I rated it a zero.
In the following days, I felt a little tired—the same way I do after a deep massage. But I could also tell that my mind was different. I was reacting differently to situations. I would start to feel anxious, but then a small voice in my brain would remind me that I had a choice. I didn’t have to be responsible for everything.
Within a week, I felt more relaxed and easygoing. I never would have used those words to describe myself before EMDR. After a few more sessions, my anxiety decreased dramatically. My husband and friends noticed that I was acting different, and I felt great.
EMDR as a Treatment for Chronic Fatigue
After three months of EMDR, I’ve noticed big improvements in my Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. My energy levels have gone way up, and my brain fog has disappeared. My digestion has improved, and my overall inflammation has decreased. I’ve also been able to get off anxiety medication. My moods are more stable, and I’m more optimistic and relaxed in my daily life.
I’m also supplementing my EMDR work with another mind-body program called the Dynamic Neural Retraining System (DNRS). DNRS is specifically designed to help people with an injured stress-response system. Many patients have overcome chronic fatigue, pain, and chemical, food, and mold sensitivities using DNRS alone. However, because DNRS is more focused on environmental injuries to the brain (ex: the Epstein-Barr virus, mold exposure, chemical exposure), I felt it was important for me to also do EMDR to address my history of emotional trauma. I will write more about my experience with DNRS in a blog post next month.
Overall, I’ve found that my mind is a powerful tool for healing. Whether or not my Chronic Fatigue Syndrome originated in my mind, I believe that I can recover from it using a neuroscientific approach. And I believe many other patients could benefit from tools like EMDR.
If you’re interested in trying it out, you can find a practitioner through the EMDR International Association.
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Photo: Kira auf der Heide