Ever since my EMDR treatment two weeks ago, my nightmares and resultant anxiety are like a runaway boulder barreling down the mountain. It seems every night is progressively worse than the previous, a seeming impossibility because it hardly feels there’s any lower “levels” left to experience. The nightmares are more vivid and realistic than they were previously, and the physiologic response from waking from them is exaggerated as well, often characterized by a racing heart, difficulty breathing, trembling, tears, and nausea. It’s upsetting and really hard to not feel completely frustrated and discouraged by how many steps back I’ve taken. My PTSD symptoms and sleep disturbances are hardly tolerable when they’re at the “normal” level, which is frankly the main impetus that caused me to seek trauma-centered therapy despite my reservations and reluctance to more intentionally face and digest the events and feelings surrounding the attack. Now that they’re so much worse, I’m not just disappointed with the regression, but also have to live through the unfortunate implications of it getting worse: tossing, turning, plaguing realistic traumatizing nightmares, and a sickening, jarring feeling when I do wake. I think one of the most trying consequences of insomnia is that obviously, with so little restless sleep, I’m running on chronically low rest that far from satisfies my healthy quota. In turn, the more tired I am, the more I am prone to daytime flashbacks, low energy, depressed mood, and poor productivity, which all feed into one another to make me feel physically and mentally worse and escalate my anxiety. The only aspect that I have much conscious control over is the anxiety level that ensues with this spiral. Understandably, I start to feel anxious as nighttime approaches, fearing terrorizing nightmares and hours of lonely awake “sleep.” Then in the day, anxiety swells, the more numerous and vivid the flashbacks as I re-experience upsetting memories and recall all the fear and pain from the trauma.
To my credit, I have noticed a marked improvement in my ability to recognize and then moderate my anxiety in most cases through a variety of techniques such as mindfulness meditation, deep breathing, distraction, shifting gears and activities, and self-talk and reprogramming using positive language and reassurance. Certain tools are better suited and effective for different situations, depending on factors such as the time of day, what I’m doing, the root of the anxiety, and my available resources. The requisite “degree of appeal” of the employed distraction also varies. For example, with mild anxiety, the distraction can be less alluring while still effectively curbing the anxiety: reading, taking Comet outside, getting a snack or making tea, etc. However, if I’m really worked up, these types of activities will do nothing to thwart my attention from the problem at hand, and I have to take more drastic measures and try to engage in mentally or physically demanding, but fun, tasks. (I don’t have many to list here because this is where I struggle and get sucked into the anxious vortex.) Usually, my current special interest (obsession) is the best bet, though far from a foolproof method. Many times, even if I cater to the whims of my obsession, I’m still panicky and upset. I have work to do.
I compare the EMDR treatment to a volcanic eruption. I’ve gotten through the main blast, but there is still billowing smoke, miles of smog blanketing the surrounding land, and rubble and ash deposited on the previously clear Earth. The flowers are flora are wilting, suffocating under the clouded, polluted air, unable to get clear sunshine into their chloroplasts. It’s painful and depressing but the smog and ash will settle in time. The sky will clear. The stems will regain their turgor, and the petals will reopen.