Practicing Ahimsa in EMDR Therapy: Yoga Skills for EMDR Therapists by Anna Schott, MA, MSW, LISW-S, ERYT-200
“Violence is a reaction to fear - a key symptom of the dominance that egoism and ignorance have over mind. Violence is not defined by any destructive act but by the desire to see another harmed. That is why nonviolence includes refraining from harm in thought as well as deed...Perfecting nonviolence requires patience, courage, strength, faith, and deep understanding.”
- Inside the Yoga Sutras
“We spend our days badgered by voices that tell us to judge others, fear others, harm others, or harm ourselves. But we are not obligated to listen to those voices, or even to take responsibility for them. They may be where we come from, but they are not where we are going. There is another voice, a voice that shines. Ahimsa is the practice of listening to that voice of lightness, cultivating that voice, trusting that voice, acting upon that voice.”
- Rolf Gates, Meditations from the Mat
Practicing ahimsa, non-harming, is intrinsic to EMDR therapy and can be woven into the 8 phases of EMDR therapy as a tool to help clients re-regulate and treat themselves with loving kindness. Ahimsa is defined within the context of yoga as having respect for all living things and avoiding violence towards others and self. Ahimsa falls under the Yamas, or moral restraints, in the eight-limb path of yoga. Yoga includes not only the physical postures, but also mindfulness, mindful breathing, meditation, and a moral guide to use within the context of yoga and in life in general. The Yamas are part of this moral guide and are yoga’s self-regulating behaviors that teach us how to relate to others and take care of ourselves. Yoga, as a whole practice, aids in healing trauma and when used in conjunction with EMDR therapy, miraculous changes can occur.
Ahimsa does not just inform our work with clients but also how we take care of ourselves as therapists. In the clinical setting, we practice Ahimsa in the words and actions we use with our clients to create a trauma-sensitive setting. We also counteract the effects of our own countertransference, vicarious trauma, and burnout as we take a non-harming approach with ourselves. The whole framework and modality of EMDR therapy embodies Ahimsa as we help our clients heal from trauma and cultivate a peaceful therapeutic setting.
Practicing Ahimsa in phase 1 of EMDR therapy influences the process of history taking with our clients. As clinicians, we must be mindful of how we conduct a mental health assessment and talk to our clients about their past to avoid retraumatization through asking about unnecessary details in regards to their traumas. Because of the fragmented nature of how trauma memories are stored, clients may not be able to identify an accurate timeline, or when they do start recounting specific memories, the proverbial can of worms opens and clients become flooded with trauma memories. We can avoid this by slowly exploring clients’ histories and not worrying about getting the exact historical details. We must remember what matters in history taking is the client’s perspective of their experiences and how they’ve integrated these memories into their view of themselves. Because of the triggering nature of our clients’ pasts, we may need to wait to obtain a full history (and this may not ever come to full fruition) and allow the conversation to be client directed. Though there are certain nuggets of information necessary to obtain to form a diagnosis and identify a treatment plan, it is more important for the wellbeing of our clients to practice Ahimsa by not asking for too much information too fast.
As we move into phase 2 of EMDR therapy, we can work with our clients to identify resources they can utilize throughout the therapeutic process and which embodies a way to direct our clients to practice Ahimsa. This can start as early as the first session as we explore the resources clients already have in place and can utilize in therapy. Exploring resources in addition to history taking can help counteract possible retraumatization in phase 1. The main purpose of resourcing is to help clients tolerate processing the traumas identified during history taking. During this phase of treatment, we can teach our clients coping skills and resources that will help them stay in their window of tolerance without self injury in thought or deed. Through guided visualizations of the Light Stream, the Calm Safe Place, and the Container Exercise installed with BLS, we strengthen our clients’ internal resources to enhance Ahimsa. As a further way to practice Ahimsa, we can also offer to install other individualized positive resources with bilateral stimulation, such as positive experiences, relationships, and achievements.
In phases 3-6 in EMDR therapy, we help clients practice Ahimsa by identifying targets to process and then engaging in bilateral stimulation to desensitize the memories and reprocess the associated negative beliefs. These beliefs perpetuate internal self-injury in the messages clients tell themselves and external self-injury in the form of harmful coping mechanisms, drug and alcohol abuse, and even cutting. Flooding and abreactions can occur during processing with clients who are extremely traumatized, pushing them outside their window of tolerance. Though we want to keep pushing forward to help clients move through these memories, we must practice Ahimsa to help them stay within the space of being comfortably uncomfortable. This can occur by drawing upon their previously installed positive resources, utilizing different cognitive interweaves, and knowing when to slow the processing train down. It also involves an understanding of when to integrate modifications into phases 3-6, such as having a client open their eyes during processing, integrating grounding techniques in between sets, and utilizing the container when clients are flooded by memories. By desensitizing these target memories, our clients practice Ahimsa by living peacefully in the present instead of through the lens of past traumas.
Traditionally, in the practice of Ahimsa, we tend to think of non-harming in the physical sense. This is certainly a reality for many of our clients who engage in physical self-harm through cutting, drug and alcohol addiction, and eating disorders. However, self-harm can present as an internal self-injury through negative self-talk. As clients desensitize their traumatic memories, the associated negative cognitions reprocess, allowing for the integration of positive cognitions, which is then installed with bilateral stimulation. This allows clients to let go of negative cognitions that do not serve them and minimizes negative self-talk and coincidental internal self-injury. Through this, our clients are actively practicing Ahimsa by listening to their positive internal voice.
A further practice of physical non-harming occurs in the body scan phase in EMDR therapy. We ask our clients to scan their body and notice any disturbances while thinking about the target memory and positive cognition. Any residual disturbances they may report can be lingering somatic experiences of the traumatic memories, and reprocessing these can lead to further healing. Though this phase of EMDR therapy may seem extraneous, it allows for some of the deepest processing due to trauma memories being stored at a very base body level. It is often the very last fibrous roots of trauma memories that need to be weeded out. The body scan offers an in-depth way to heal physically from the traumas, leading to a continued state of peace and calm in which to continue practicing Ahimsa.
EMDR therapy is based on the three pronged model of addressing and reprocessing past, present, and future targets to help clients reach optimal functioning. Reprocessing past and present targets offers a way for clients to heal. Installing a future template lays the groundwork for an ongoing mindset of practicing Ahimsa. By visualizing positive ways to handle related situations, clients automatically create an internal positive environment to respond to new and different situations. This is also a way to carry their installed positive cognitions into future scenarios to which they will respond. This will help them to strengthen their practice of Ahimsa as they continue to install and strengthen their positive cognitions and strengths.
As EMDR therapists, we hear trauma all day long. Reprocessing these memories leads to so much healing for our clients but can take a toll on us as therapists through countertransference, vicarious trauma, and burnout. It is imperative as clinicians to practice Ahimsa ourselves. This may manifest as taking a mental health day, limiting the number of clients seen back to back, making sure to take a quick break in between sessions to eat, drink water, and to answer the call of nature. It should also include a rigorous self-care routine outside of work in which you engage in activities that ground and replenish you. In sessions, staying grounded and mindful while practicing Ahimsa will help you to stay present with your clients without absorbing all of the emotions and energies they are outputting as they process their own trauma. Having a self-practice of Ahimsa will enhance your abilities as a clinician and assist in staying engaged with your clients.
Practicing Ahimsa guides us in living in a peaceful way within ourselves and within the world. Not only does non-harming refer to refraining from physically and verbally hurting someone else, it also applies to how we treat and speak to ourselves. As EMDR clinicians, we are teaching our clients to practice non-harming through reprocessing their traumas in the 8 phases and installing positive cognitions that inform how they live their lives moving forward. Through Ahimsa we discover the light within ourselves that directs us in our lives.
To Write or Not to Write: Utilizing the Future Template to Manifest Our Dreams by Anna Schott, LISW-S
I know I’m not the only one grappling with transitioning from full time therapist to other professional pursuits, such as consultation, training, writing, etc. I’ve had plenty of conversations with friends and colleagues about this very topic and our woes are very similar: there are too many clients to see, too many family obligations to juggle, not enough time in the day, etc. I don’t have the answer, but I figured the more I share my intentions for this transition, the more likely it is to manifest (and please feel free to share any ideas you may have in the comments section below!).
I feel an internal drive to grow professionally by developing trainings and writing, but this conflicts with my present obligations. As I think of all the challenges I face in making this transition, the biggest one is the overall feeling of guilt. I have a full caseload of clients, and they need to see me. If I schedule time out of my workday, which I have tried to do with little success, I feel like I’m not doing enough for my clients by not seeing them as often as needed or not taking on new clients. About three months ago, I blocked off Fridays on my schedule to dedicate time to manifesting my goals; ask me how many Fridays I haven’t seen clients, and the answer would be not very many. If I try to set aside time at home in the evenings or weekends, I wrestle with the guilt of not doing enough for my kids and family. If I tell them to leave me alone for an hour...well, it’s just not feasible. I get one or both of the kids looking of my shoulder, asking me what I’m doing and am I done yet - that was my night last night. Again, it brings up the feelings of guilt and the belief “I’m not doing enough”.
We do have this amazing ability as EMDR therapists to process through blocks that keep us from realizing our greatest potential. We can come up with every excuse in the book not to take steps forward, but at the end of the day, we have to push out of our comfort zones and address the fact that we are scared our greatest fear will be realized and reinforce the negative beliefs of “I’m not good enough”, “I’m a failure”, “I’m not doing enough”, etc. By using the three-pronged model, we can identify and reprocess the origins of our negative beliefs, reprocess any current triggers, and install a future template to help us push through to achieve our goals. Installing a future template is often a part of EMDR therapy that is overlooked and minimized, but it can be extremely transformative. By being able to visualize an image of how you want to handle situations in the future, such as writing a book or conducting a training, with a positive cognition, such as “I am good enough” or “I am successful” can open us to manifesting these positive visualizations. It allows us to have a firm grasp on what we want in our future moving forward and gives us the momentum to take the first tentative steps.
This feels like one of those leap of faith moments, and I have to remember that I’ve been here before. I took a leap of faith when I went into private practice after working at a nonprofit with salary, benefits, vacation time, and a sense of stability. Though working at the agency was beneficial in many different ways, I outgrew it and knew I had to let go of that old familiar sense of safety to venture out to start my own holistic private practice. It’s the same driving feeling now as before - this is just something I have to do in order to be true to my authentic self. When I went through that transition before, I had to trust my instincts that this is the right move and remember that new opportunities won’t present themselves if I’m still holding on to old stuff. I have to take my own advice, let go of the old to embrace the new. This is my promise that I make to myself, to be intentional about my goals and not waver in the face the fear, and I hope you make this same promise to yourself. We counsel our clients to trust the process and learn to let go. Now it’s our turn.
One of the most common questions I receive from consultees is how to make EMDR therapy their main modality and transition into being an EMDR therapist. They see the ease and comfort I have in my own practice as an EMDR therapist as well as in the group practice I co-founded. They want to emulate this and are stuck, not knowing the steps to take. However, what they don’t see are the years of work, education, training, consultation, client sessions, blood, sweat, and tears that went into building my clinical practice into what it is today. Cultivating a culture of EMDR therapy in your individual work with clients as well as your clinical setting is possible by being mindful of the following considerations.
Jump right in. A challenge I hear from new EMDR therapists is how to get themselves on board with EMDR therapy. Especially after part 1 of the basic training, many clinicians are completely overwhelmed by all of the new information presented and have a difficult time shifting their clinical framework from the old way of doing things to this new, seemingly mystical clinical framework. My best advice is to not wait. Jump right into to it as soon as you leave the training. Come Monday morning, start phase 1 with your clients and look for targets you can process. Also, schedule consultation soon after part 1 to further discuss and consult on how to implement the 8 phase protocol with your current clients. Schedule part 2 within a few months of completing part 1 even if you haven’t completed many consultation hours or started really using EMDR therapy much within your practice. If you wait, you will lose momentum as well as get lost in the new information. Months may pass before you tiptoe into using any bilateral stimulation, even just for resourcing. It’s okay if you have to read from a script during the first 100 sessions or ask the steps out of order periodically. Your EMDR sessions will be messier than what was demonstrated in the trainings; just keep jumping into it over and over again. Practice makes perfect and your clients will forgive you or not even know the difference if you asked for the VOC before the SUDs.
Shift your focus from clinical tool to clinical modality. Since its conception, the view on EMDR therapy shifted from a tool to use within therapy to an all-encompassing treatment modality. By viewing it as such, the approach is altered from having specific EMDR sessions in which you wave your fingers in front of your clients to engaging in EMDR therapy from day one with a client even without bilateral stimulation. Working through the 8 phases of EMDR therapy and understanding the effects of traumas/adverse experiences, further integrates EMDR therapy as a clinical modality. There are many insights and breakthroughs that occur in identifying the origins of negative beliefs and their associated traumas/adverse experiences. Knowing the power of these insights takes the pressure off of rushing into phase 3-6 when a client is not fully prepared and resourced and further highlights the benefits that occur even outside of reprocessing sessions emphasizing a culture of EMDR therapy within your practice.
Have the motto “we can process that!” I constantly have my ears open to potential targets and am known to say, to a bit of chagrin of my clients, “we can process that!”. Not all traumas/adverse experiences are disclosed at the beginning of treatment. Sometimes they are slow to reveal themselves because a client isn’t ready or is just ignorant that these potential targets are affecting their current functioning. With all the advanced EMDR topic trainings targeting specific symptoms and issues, there is potential for an endless number of special protocols. However, you do not have to be specially trained if you have a strong understanding of the basic EMDR therapy protocol and are competent in working with the specific population. Though there may be special considerations with different populations, you can target and process anything that proves to be a trauma/adverse experience. Attend consultation sessions and EMDR networking groups to listen to other clinicians’ experiences in identifying shrouded targets. The more you practice your EMDR skills, the more you will hone your intuition about what constitutes a good target.
Identify yourself as an EMDR Therapist. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy; if you identify as one, you are one. Introduce yourself as an EMDR therapist, which will give you ample opportunity to discuss your treatment approach with potential clients and referral sources. As you become more established, clients will seek you out specifically for EMDR therapy further cultivating the culture of EMDR therapy within your practice. I regularly receive requests from potential clients looking specifically for EMDR therapy indicating a familiarity with this modality. Initially after being trained in EMDR therapy, however, I had to convince all my clients to try this new-fangled therapy. It was a shift from their conceptualization of traditional talk therapy to a culture of EMDR therapy in which we identified potential trauma targets and used bilateral stimulation to desensitize and reprocess these targets. Despite my immediate enthusiasm for EMDR therapy, not all of my clients were as convinced, and it took some time, effort, educating, and demonstrating to create a culture of EMDR therapy within my own practice.
Get the word out. The more publicity and discussions about EMDR therapy, the more mainstream it becomes as a treatment modality. We can cultivate a culture of EMDR therapy in our clinical settings by addressing the effects of traumas/adverse experiences on the brain and explaining the Adaptive Information Processing model. Share the EMDR love with your friends and family. Post information and articles about the effects of trauma/adverse experiences and EMDR therapy on your social media. Host informational sessions at your practice or place of employment and work EMDR therapy into any presentations you are giving as a mental health provider. Network with other EMDR therapists by joining EMDRIA and regional network groups. If you are at an agency, hosting an informational session as a brown bag lunch can help education your colleagues in EMDR therapy. Also, ask your clients to provide testimonials about their experiences with EMDR therapy to their other healthcare providers..
Cultivating a culture of EMDR therapy can be an arduous process. You will constantly have to explain, reinforce, and reframe people’s beliefs about EMDR as a whole therapy framework. By jumping right into the 8 phases and identifying yourself as an EMDR therapist though, you will quickly begin to shift your practice to an EMDR therapy framework. Looking for potential targets within the therapeutic setting and getting the word out about EMDR therapy whether it is within your personal circle or at your practice or agency further cultivates a culture of EMDR therapy within your individual clinical practice as well as within your practice or agency. It will be well worth the effort as you process your clients’ traumas/adverse experiences helping them to achieve a higher level of healing.
I woke up this morning to the news that a mass shooting occurred in Dayton, Ohio, about 90 miles west of my home. This was the second mass shooting in 24 hours from which I am still reeling. Though these events did not affect me directly, it is still impactful because of the way it alters my thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and actions. I feel heavier, weighed down with worry, and just an overall sadness. Today, I was planning on taking my kids back-to-school shopping and can’t help but think “What if this happens there and should we even go?”
I hate this thought process and don’t want to live in fear of a tragedy happening to my family, but it’s something I can’t shake. These feelings reveal themselves in the conversations I have with my kids about what to do if a shooting occurs in a public setting. Not to terrify them, but to prepare them in a time of crisis. Unfortunately, this is a common dialogue I have with them to teach them how to keep themselves safe, and they have already gone through this narrative in their schools where they practice lockdown drills and have even been exposed to shootings within our own community. Again, though we weren’t personally affected by these tragedies by being there or having a friend or family member involved, these traumas do affect me personally as I move through the world and teach my kids how to move through the world. I have a heightened sense of worry and anxiety for my family and friends because you never know when it is going to happen.
As an EMDR therapist, I am acutely aware of how trauma can impact individuals in a variety of ways. It is important to understand how mass shootings and community traumas impact not just the direct victims but also impact the community as a whole. The obvious application of EMDR therapy is with any person who was directly involved in a shooting as a victim. There may be images, sounds, smells, somatic sensations, and other stimuli that are triggering and bring the experience flooding back into the present creating a fight, flight, or freeze response. All of these can be processed with EMDR therapy, releasing the emotional charge associated with these triggers and distancing the past from the present.
Survivor guilt is often talked about in conjunction with shootings. My friend was killed, and I survived. A stranger died saving me; if I was at that event that day, it would have been me that was killed. Our brain tricks us into believing that if I was there I could have stopped it, it’s my fault she died, it should have been me, or any number of negative beliefs that our brain uses to try to make sense of what happened. The problem is that these beliefs are just not true and most of the time our rational brain knows this (the neocortex). Our trauma brain (limbic and reptilian) just hasn’t caught up and is in fight, flight, or freeze mode. When you process the traumatic memories, the trauma brain links up with the rational brain, bringing an adaptability to these negative beliefs.
Hearing about these events on the news or through stories told by survivors can be traumatizing in and of themselves. This can instill the same trauma response as directly experiencing a traumatic event. These vicarious traumas can be reprocessed in the same manner using EMDR therapy by targeting the corresponding images you have about these events. Reprocessing these events with EMDR therapy can help desensitize the horrific pictures that go along with a mass tragedy. It allows you to bring these images and memories to an adaptable place letting go of the associated negative beliefs, putting the past in the past and building resiliency. By doing so, you can engage in everyday life and feel empowered.
As I take my kids shopping this afternoon for their first day of school outfits, I will still talk to them about what to do if some crisis occurs to prepare them to keep themselves safe. However, I will do this from a place of preparedness and not fear. I will also talk to them about the different tragedies in our community and how they can affect change just by treating others with kindness and respect and putting more positivity out into the world. I hope to instill in them a sense of safety, empowerment, hope, and love. I hope and pray nothing like this directly affects us, but with the frequency of these occurrences, I fear it is inevitable. My hope is that as we help people to heal and show loving kindness to others, the occurrences of these tragedies will diminish.
Institute for creative mindfulness
Our work and our mission is to redefine therapy and our conversations are about the art and practice of healing. Blog launched in May 2018 by Dr. Jamie Marich, affiliates, and friends.