Before COVID, Claudia Germuga lived a mile-a-minute New York City life. A Brooklyn-based Pilates and breathwork instructor, she sailed around the city from studio to studio, teaching as many as 26 fitness classes a week. That all stopped in March 2020, when lockdown found her solo in her studio apartment with time to spare. At first the solitude and calm were welcome, but as the novelty wore off, quarantine exacerbated lifelong feelings of being left alone. “I started to realize that I didn’t feel safe in my body or in my space,” she recalls. “I needed to heal some past trauma with my mother. I was also an only child, and this idea of loneliness has been very present through COVID. For a long time, I didn’t think there was any big trauma that I’d gone through. I always felt that if I could wait a few more years, the feelings would shift or fade away. But they never did.”
A former dancer, Germuga knew that her most potent portal for healing would be her own body. “I didn’t want to do talk therapy—I wanted a more somatic technique that would help my nervous system,” she says. So, when a friend told her about Liza Roeckl, a Woodstock-based therapist and bodyworker who uses eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), she booked some time with her on Zoom. EMDR is a psychotherapy that uses bilateral stimulation—the alternate stimulation of the right and left hemispheres of the brain—as a method of healing trauma by changing the way it’s stored in the body.
Roeckl led her through several sessions of preparatory work to begin, including a session devoted to “resourcing,” in which Germuga was asked to choose a peaceful place, a protective figure, a nurturer, and a wise figure. “If we put all of those resources into the nervous system, then we keep the clients safe when they have to go into the harder parts of these traumas,” says Roeckl. Armed with these resources—her peaceful place was a favorite spot by the river, and her protector was a grizzly bear—Germuga was ready for a deep-dive into the psyche.
It’s Human to Have (and Heal) Trauma
Talk to any therapist these days, and you’re likely to hear the same thing: They’ve never been busier. As we slowly emerge from a global pandemic—one of the most traumatic collective events of the last century—people are exhausted from the strain of having to keep it all together. Amid the quiet and isolation, we’ve had to face ourselves and, sometimes, our demons too.
Under the guidance of a trained practitioner, EMDR is one way to process difficult life experiences safely, and for many of us, effectually. As one of the most thoroughly researched therapies for trauma and PTSD, it’s widely endorsed by mental health experts as a science-based modality. The US Department of Veteran Affairs named EMDR as one of three therapies with the highest level of evidence in treating trauma. And the national registry of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) cites EMDR as an evidence-based practice for treating PTSD, anxiety, and depression that can also lead to an improvement in mental health functioning.
“What makes EMDR unique is that it uses bilateral stimulation as a mechanism to help people deepen their access to memory in a way that is, for some reason, more tolerable to the nervous system,” explains Amy Rosenthal, a Manhattan-based psychotherapist and EMDR consultant and clinician with a subspecialty in trauma and PTSD. “When trauma happens, it lands in a fixed state and leaves a residue of unprocessed material. And sometimes, we get stuck in it. We can get myopic and see the trauma like a snapshot, and we miss a lot of other things that have happened, including our own sense of agency.” Rosenthal compares trauma to a car that’s stuck on the superhighway of our brain’s neural networks—and EMDR is like AAA. “It gives the car a jumpstart so it can move from maladaptive to adaptive. It brings together both sides of the brain so you can look at the experience as a whole. Then you can see what else is there. What else do you know now that you didn’t know then, and that might help you?”
From Butterfly Taps to Breakthroughs
EMDR has evolved since the psychotherapist Frances Shapiro “discovered” it while walking in the park one day in 1987, when she found that if she moved her eyes (but not her head) from side to side while thinking of an agitating event, that helped to desensitize it. These days, EMDR therapists use different methods of connecting the right and left sides of the brain that may or may not involve eye movements—whether it’s having the client hold a buzzer in each hand, administering light and sound stimulation, or a process called butterfly tapping. The latter involves crossing your arms in front of your torso and alternately tapping each side of your upper chest. (British royal Prince Harry demonstrated it recently on the Apple TV+ series “The Me You Can’t See,” where he invited the world to sit in on one of his EMDR therapy sessions to deal with trauma from the death of his mother, Princess Diana.)
Butterfly tapping works well for virtual EMDR sessions, so it’s the method that Germuga has mainly used in her ongoing therapy with Roeckl. “I’ll talk about what it is I’m feeling, and then we’ll do a round of taps and Liza will ask me what’s coming up as I tap,” she explains. “It feels associative and images arise in a nonlinear way, because the subconscious is not linear. What EMDR does really well is help locate what you’re feeling in your body. I’m able to directly regulate my nervous system, not by trying to combat what I’m experiencing by controlling it from my head, but by going into the body and addressing it there.” In one session, she traced her anxieties to the moment when she was dropped off at college for the first time, abruptly, during the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. With discoveries like these, things have begun to shift for her in subtle yet powerful ways. “I had a kind ofbreakthrough with my mom the other day where I was able to share something that I would have never spoken about with her before,” she says. “There’s more forgiveness, and there’s more availability of myself to share with her, to foster that connection.”
“Often when trauma comes into the body, it gets stuck in one bundle of nerves and doesn’t cross over to the other side of the brain,” explains Roeckl. “Or it links up with a certain nerve pattern, and then you’re re-traumatized. Say you have a mean boss who intimidates you, and that might have linked up to an earlier memory on the same nerve pattern of your first-grade teacher who was really mean, or your dad who was really mean. So, that mean boss you have at age 40 is stimulating earlier traumas. What we do with EMDR is light up the trauma. Then we start connecting it to the other side of the brain through bilateral stimulation, and we process it out.”
Roeckl herself grew up in a violent home where she experienced feelings of unsafety as a child. “I had some big T traumas to work out,” she says, “and I found EMDR to be profoundly healing. I found a feeling of being at home in my own body, which I definitely did not have growing up.” As a practitioner of EMDR, she has a subspecialty of working with women who are experiencing fertility issues or who have suffered a miscarriage or still birth. She uses EMDR to help them process their losses and find faith in their body again. Some clients come to her for help with addiction and recovery, while others, like Germuga, have family-of-origin issues. “We can’t change what happened,” she says, “but we can change how it’s affecting your everyday life.”
Freedom from PTSD—and Gimmicks
Some promoters of EMDR talk up how fast it works, but practitioners like Rosenthal are wary of that kind of hype. “At first, EMDR was marketed as therapy at warp speed. It was like, ‘Just go to this person, use this funny eye movement thing, and you’ll feel better. It won’t take that many sessions, and then you can go back to living your life.’ That’s not how I practice. Everybody’s different and has their own journey.” That said, Rosenthal has seen the therapy work for some people in as few as six to ten sessions. During COVID, she has volunteered as a therapist for medical personnel and emergency responders with an EMDR humanitarian assistance program through New York City’s trauma recovery network (TNR). “One of my TRN cases was a woman who felt like she couldn’t go back to working in a hospital again because of what she endured,” says Rosenthal. “But she loved that work so much, so she wanted to be able to get back in the hospital. And [after six to eight sessions] she was able to go back.”
For Annabel Spencer, a single mother in Seattle, a shift was noticeable after a handful of sessions. When Spencer (not her real name) spent a month in an alcohol rehab program, EMDR was on the menu along with a range of other science-based therapies. “My focus was on family-of-origin issues, looking back at the root cause of why I was where I was at that point in my life,” she recalls. During the sessions, she focused on a time in second grade when her mother remarried and they moved across the country to start their new life. “Suddenly, my mom wasn’t available,” she recalls. “I remember standing alone in the middle of the night in this new apartment, her telling me to go back to bed, and just feeling completely despondent.”
For bilateral stimulation, the EMDR therapist used light and sound pulsations. “It reminded me of the 1970s video game Pong,” she says. The electronic setup involved lights moving back and forth, as well as clicking sounds transmitted through headphones in alternate ears. “I chose a certain speed of clicks that were comforting to me and that didn’t increase the anxiety,” she notes. She also chose a safe space—a pickle jar where she could contain the thoughts if they got too overwhelming to continue. Spencer found the experience exhausting, but ultimately, effective. “I found that I was able to let go of a lot of the sadness and other feelings that came up, or at least know that it was okay to feel those things,” she says. “I could go back to that memory and stand in that living room next to my little self and know that I’d be alright. That image helped to resolve a lot of the trauma. It’s definitely a therapy that I’d work with again.”
Not everyone takes to EMDR, and that’s okay. “If everybody did, then it would be the only therapy that people wanted to do,” says Rosenthal. “But I think that it does help to relieve suffering for many, many people.” When it’s a good fit, EMDR can work a kind of magic by changing our limiting beliefs. She’s seen traumatized rescue workers and earthquake survivors go from paralyzing thoughts of “I’m in danger” and “I’m flawed because I couldn’t save everybody” to thoughts of “I’m resilient, I’m creative, and I can figure out how to help myself and others.” This has been a through-line for many of us during COVID—and it will continue to be as long as there are humans walking on this earth. “I just want to be useful and help people who are suffering,” Rosenthal adds. “EMDR is a good modality for that.”