The other night during a storm the lights went out and I was suddenly plunged into darkness. I calmly reached for my phone, turned on the light and went looking for the flashlight. This is a stark contrast to how I used to react to the dark, and the change is all due to one session with a therapist trained in EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing).
I have always loved spooky things. I watch scary movies and read scary books. It’s possible years of this finally caught up with me and I started to get a little freaked out by the dark. When we moved to Jacksonville, my husband started traveling a lot for work so I was often home alone. Our new house seemed highly susceptible to power outages every time it rained. I was relating a story to a friend, about how I had hurt my arm hurtling myself over the couch in a desperate dash for the front door. The lights had suddenly gone out that past night and my immediate response was to leap over the back of the couch (shortest distance), slam into the trash can (didn’t see it) and get outside as fast as possible, because outside was somehow “safe.”
A therapist happen to overhear and mention that’s not a “normal response” and she could possibly help with a new therapy she had learned that was supposed to be very effective for “irrational fears.” I was intrigued, and figured it couldn’t hurt, so I agreed to meet with her and try it.
So that’s how I fell into EMDR, which stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. I looked it up and read about how it is also used to treat people who experienced trauma in the past, where it is affecting them in the present. It retrains your brain to react differently in the present. In this case, I guess my trauma was loading my brain with years of scary things in the dark.
Here’s how the session went:
I started by explaining my fears and what I might be imaging when the lights went out. Scary ghosty things. Something trying to get me in the dark, that sort of thing. The surge of adrenaline and spike of fear that ran through me when it happened.
She then had me watch her finger move side-to-side, so my eyes followed, which reminded me of being hypnotized, except I didn’t go into any trance-like state. During this time I was to imagine the absolute worst fears I had about the situation and how I reacted to them.
Then she swiped her hand up and down and had me take a deep breath and clear my mind.
We talked about what I had imagined and pictured and why they were irrational.
Then we did the eye thing again, this time imaging the opposite – sitting in the dark and being fine with it. Imagining all the things I was afraid of disappearing, retreating, or just not existing.
Again she swiped her hand up and down and had me take a deep breath, and then we discussed what I pictured and how I felt.
This went on a few more times – my eyes going back and forth, imagining the different scenario, a more normal reaction, even imagining some of the more specific scary things (leftover from scary movies) dissolving into nothing.
When we were done, I didn’t feel any different and could have no idea if it even worked until I was put in that situation. So I went home and walked into my garage, shut the door and turned out the light. While I didn’t feel like it was the greatest place in the world, I also didn’t try to immediately claw my way out of there. My heart didn’t race, there was no panic attack. This was progress.
How things are now:
I’m still amazed at how effective it was just from that one session. I do still like to have a little nightlight when I’m home alone in the dark, but it’s really just so I can see if I have to get up in the middle of the night and not because I think something is hiding in the shadows. I can flip off the lights in the middle of a room and calmly walk out in complete darkness. I knew things were really different when I accidently locked myself in the bathroom after shutting off the light and didn’t try to beat the door down.
But it’s also up to me to keep my brain from sliding back. I know certain images can imprint themselves again. I don’t watch as many scary movies and when I do, sometimes I look away at certain parts that might linger in my mind otherwise. When I do find silly scary thoughts creeping back in, I can take myself back to that session mentally and recall the last bit where I defeated my fears and that usually helps.
The brain is an amazing thing! I’ve never met anyone else who’s tried this and would love to hear someone else’s experience. Please share in the comments if you’ve given it a try.