EMDR and the Meaning of Suffering

EMDR and the Meaning of Suffering

EMDR and the Meaning of Suffering

Ed Welch

You already know what PTSD is – Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It is probably the best-known and most common psychiatric diagnosis. PTSD describes people who have experienced a very painful event and are stuck in that moment of past pain—its severity never fades.

What you may not know is that EMDR – Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing – is gradually becoming the preferred treatment for PTSD. As in most post-traumatic therapies, you are asked to invoke the past experience with all its power. What makes EMDR unique is, while keeping the traumatic memory in mind, you follow an object that moves from right to left across your visual field – a therapist’s fingers, for example – activating both hemispheres of your brain. The theory is that you are re-programming those neural snares, releasing past memories, pain, flashbacks, broken relationships, and irritability and replacing them with peace and tranquility.

Honest, I am not making this up.

As you can imagine, any treatment in which you wiggle your eyes at the right time and are cured will have its detractors, and EMDR has its share of critics. But the therapy not only persists; it becomes more popular.

How do you even begin to understand this? Any of a dozen strands in this topic could become someone’s life’s work. The challenge for biblical counseling is to develop a biblical overview of the field, which is daunting, especially when no immediate scripture references jump to mind.

Here is a possible starting point.

Suffering can never be reduced to mere physiological events that can be reprogrammed. Instead, suffering is connected to the meaning we ascribe to the events.

An African man loses his child. His American friends believe he is in denial and are astounded that he doesn’t grieve. His religion, however, is “that’s life,” so he has brief flashes of missing his son then moves on. Put a Hindu in the same situation and you get a different response. You will find grief, gifts to idols to appease angry gods, and attempts to receive better karma next time around. If you are a Christian you grieve with hope.

Here is a corollary to this starting point.

The more a therapy can be reduced to a series of steps, and the more it invokes a neurological reconfiguring, the more it assumes a mechanistic view of people and has lost any remnants of a soul. (By soul I mean that we live before God and, as a result, we live with basic questions about who we are, why we live, and how we live).

The problems with EMDR won’t be discovered in the research. Maybe it alleviates some pain, maybe it doesn’t work any better than the passage of time. The problems lie in its assumptions about people. It suggests that life simply impresses itself on our brains and bad events mess up our neurons. That is a shallow view of life and people.

Instead, life is a two-way street. The events of life impress themselves on us, and we impose meaning on them. What is a painful hardship in one culture might be normal and even inconsequential in another. The same event, even the same trauma, means different things to different people. Meanwhile, new experiences bring challenges to the way we make sense out of life. When it brings challenges that confront our old ways of seeing, we can become wobbly and must either reaffirm and deepen our old worldview, or the old shatters as we make way for something new.

So is it possible that some people get stuck in past pain? Yes. Does it make sense that victims of severe trauma and war veterans struggle with moving forward in daily life? Absolutely. But without addressing the meaning attributed to what happened, moving forward will continue to be hard.

Here are a couple of examples of what I mean. These are not events that would normally result in PTSD symptoms but show how what we believe impacts how we react.

Start with the loss of a spouse. That is hard for anyone, even if the relationship was difficult. But the pain tends to decrease over time. The sobs of the funeral are gradually overtaken by loneliness mingled with fond memories.

Now add guilt. The surviving spouse never said, “I love you.” The surviving spouse never said, “Will you forgive me?” Guilt will always cause grief to be both intense and enduring.

Now add a lifestyle in which you isolated yourself from other people. It was just you and your spouse. Now add that you think being single is intolerable.

Now add a conviction that your spouse did not trust Jesus and you will never be reunited, and be sure not to entrust your spouse to the Lord who judges justly.

These will make your loss staggering.

Or—start with the loss of a job.

Add an idolatrous attachment to it. You loved the reputation it brought and the power of your paycheck.
Add that the loss of the job is due to a dishonest manager, and you live with bitterness and thoughts of revenge.

The loss now becomes life-dominating.

If you are frozen in old painful events, check for the meaning that is attached to those events. Is there any baggage of guilt or anger? Look for whether or not you believe the Lord is in your suffering. Consider any myths that have attached themselves to your knowledge of God. For example, have you become a deist who believes that an impersonal God is idly on his throne and leaves the day-to-day business of earthly life to caprice or chance?

On the other hand, if you have said that Jesus is Lord and are persuaded that he is the Suffering Servant and Compassionate King, if you believe Romans 8:32 – He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all– how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? – then your confident hope is in the reigning Christ and you will by-no-means be stuck. Still familiar with grief? Yes. Grief that intensifies over time? No.

This still raises questions. For example, if certain techniques can lessen pain, even if they seem a little odd, can’t we use them? It is hard to imagine a good biblical argument against such a technique, unless the technique was illegal or immoral and EMDR is neither. But we could safely say this: be careful that in your quest for such techniques you do not skirt biblical ways of examining the unnecessary or even sinful attachments to your pain, and never fatigue in using suffering as a time to turn to and know the God whose love is more sophisticated than we know.

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