EMDR Case Study

Ellen was a thirty-five year old woman who had been in psychotherapy for two years. The therapy was going well, but she was puzzled by a persistent dream in which she could flap her arms and fly. She put the dream aside and tried to see it as an unsolved mystery.

When two snipers went on a killing spree in the next state, she became so anxious that she could not leave the house. The flying dream returned in full force and Ellen began to have flashbacks to a traumatic event that had occurred in college. She had been assaulted by a man who grabbed her in the university parking lot as she went to her car. Ellen escaped screaming, the man was arraigned and incarcerated for assault, and she tried to put the incident behind her. But she noticed through the years that she became startled when she heard footsteps behind her or when she heard sudden noises. She also began to binge eat and gained 10 pounds during the next year in college.

EMDR was recommended for the flashbacks that began to trouble her and so she began treatment. Ellen’s “target symptom” was the assault in college. As she started the EMDR eye movements, her therapist told her to allow herself to see whatever passed in her mind. Ellen re-experienced the shock and terror of the assault, reliving the scene in her mind and body. Then she let it go as if she were on a train watching the event become smaller and smaller until it disappeared from memory. Finally it was gone and in the past.

The next memory that came up during the processing was when she was a small child in the hospital having her tonsils removed. She felt safe with her mother beside her, but then the nurses wheeled her away to the operating room. She remembered screaming and feeling suffocated when they held her down and the doctor put a black ether mask over her face. As she relived the memory, she relaxed her breathing and felt in control of it. Then she let this memory go, too.

In both instances, Ellen had believed that she was helpless. Her flying dream had represented a fantasy of being able to fly away from dangerous situations. Through EMDR, her negative belief that she was helpless changed to “I can take care of myself.” She realized that with her current physical strength, wise mind, and careful choices, she could do her best to protect herself. No longer did she have to fly away from her traumas at night.

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