DISSOCIATION, EYE-TRACKING, VISUAL IMAGERY, PROCESSING, EMDR…

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The holiday winter season is one of my least favorite times of the year. But I have for each season become better at dealing with them, since I decided to reclaim them, and build my own traditions around them. So, I got a bit surprised when this year, I did not do so well. But in a new and unexpected way. I do think it is a step forward, as I am again learning new things about myself (and possibly about how severe childhood trauma “works”, or what people with severe childhood trauma can experience).

I am neurodivergent as well (forever will the professionals debate whether I am “just” traumatized”, or was born neurodivergent (I have an autism and ADHD diagnose, but also a C-PTSD and DID) – I do think this combination of being neurodivergent and having dissociative “difficulties”, or "tendencies" is pretty common – maybe because being neurodivergent makes you prone to dissociate, or maybe it is developmental (including lack of attachment) + abuse trauma – and that gives the same result? It is very hard to as in my case, 55 years later, figure out what is what. I am not sure that is what is important either. I have decided to go with the autism diagnose, as it is helping me understand myself.

But that is not what this text is about. Disputing what is nature or (lack of) nurture – or both. I am mentioning it because this is an intersection of potential mechanisms.

I was stressed over the holidays, and a, at the very last minute, major change in where I was supposed to be during the (in Sweden) most important holiday day, Christmas eve, contributed a lot to that. I seemingly did well during that day, but slowly after that, day by day, dove deeper into some darker spaces within. Not in the sense of the usual flashbacks and nightmares (mental imagery)[i], even if those also increased. No, it was other “symptoms” showing up. Strong tensions. Headaches. And the most peculiar of them all – my eyes. They could not stop going from side to side. It made me very dizzy and nauseous.

I have done equine assisted EMDR in my trauma therapy, I also know how EMDR works in an office setting, even if never have had a proper session doing it (I react strongly to it and dissociate/pass out). I can’t even stand a normal neurological exam when they move a finger in front of my eyes and ask me to follow it.

As a cognitive science student, I have also taken courses where we have visited an eye-tracking lab and read and discussed quite a lot about the function of eye movements, in focusing on and processing information. Also, how that works even in a dark room, or with your eyes closed. Remembering and retrieving memory works in the same ways, you move your eyes also in those situations, in retrieving them. I also remember that how something that belong together as information (a text and picture e.g.) is designed (what layout it has), plays a role in how well one manages to integrate the topic the information is about. Here thinking of how I have stored my memories (in compartments) affects how hard it is to process and integrate them. This study field intrigued me. But I did not follow up on it that much, and the course I took was about 7 years ago… (I am a VERY slow master student – for several reasons). As autistic people are detail oriented, and each detail of my memories I have stored in different parts of me, and autistic people are known to need a lot of time to process (but easily take in information) – I am starting to see something that looks like a pattern to me… how is autism and the coping strategy in severe and prolonged childhood trauma related? What is the hen and what is the egg here?

As I understand it, EMDR is supposed to help people process un-processed inner material (memories, emotions etc) – as a part of processing a traumatic past and being able to put it (a bit more) to rest.

But… and it dawned on me during the holidays. What if we also need a reversed process? I mean, with my way of functioning, my problem is not that I do not access my traumatic material. I am filter-less (hence the need to dissociate, really compartmentalize things so they disappear out of my mind). My problem is that I get overwhelmed, let too much information in, can’t process it, and go into all kinds of altered consciousnesses to not have to be with what is too much for me. I am not good at pacing (titrating) myself. It is hard for me to “turn down/off” (reduce the volume in) my brain, and still be present. I end up in “freeze states” where I cannot move. Night terrors, but also in tonic immobility, still awake, just not able to respond or move. It is also super hard for me to shift out of one state and into another (transitions in general are hard for me). My brain just keeps on going. At times, I am having fun. Thinking deep and broad, seeing all kinds of beautiful connections.

But at times, getting stuck in my own past, I am not having fun, at all.

So this makes me wonder. How can I learn to master my own processing? How can I stop it? And this is where my idea on some kind of reversed EMDR came to my mind. If EMDR is developed as a protocol to help people process more, by moving their eyes. It should be possible to come up with a protocol that does the opposite. Namely stop, or at least slows down the processing speed?

If I function like this because I have too many synapses that wasn’t pruned when I grew up, that I have too much of a lot of functions (hyper-focus, hyper-emotionality, hyper-senses, hyper-memory)[ii], an extreme detail focus (lack central coherence), or if it is a consequence of severe psychological trauma and is a coping mechanism – is not that important.

To explore that – could be interesting but would not help me. What would help me is to help me understand how I can help myself better.

During the holidays I ended up being so severely dizzy (I still struggle with it, but it is somewhat better) – I could hardly walk. I felt like I was drunk. The whole world ended up spinning around. And it felt like my eyes would jump out of their sockets and my head implode. And the nausea… I even tried to shut out all external stimuli, to make it fully dark, by blindfolding myself. It did help a bit, but did, of course not, shut out the internal images that my internal eyes kept on scanning back and forth between. What was hard was not the pictures, at times there were not pictures, no words, no story, no nothing, except sensations and emotions. I was thinking this was some kind of after processing? So it was not the content that was hard to deal with, it was the processing per se. 

I do think all this “scanning”, all these eye movements are helping me process things, but the process is “out of control”. So, this is, again, why I ask, could there possibly be a reversed EMDR protocol, to help me slow this down, control it somewhat better?

For many people, access to traumatic memory is closed off. For me, I “just” had hidden them all (compartmentalized them). Once the walls between my compartments started to come down, I had no ability to filter what came towards me. I had to put up some of the walls temporarily again, but it is much harder as an adult to “unsee” parts of yourself, than it was as a child.

Being still and process memories (or anything) – like EMDR in an office setting is not ideal for me. What works for me is to move. I need an embodied processing variant (which is why experiential learning/therapy work so good for me). But not a pure somatic therapy, as that leaves me as a prisoner in my own experiences. I need help to process AND verbalize what happens to me. The verbalizing and sharing is a very important part of all this for me.

As small children, our cognition grows from our body’s interaction and movement with and in our world. What happens if you often, repeatedly are not in control of that interaction or even of the movements? What if movement is constrained? Or you (your body) are moved for you? Forced into movements?

How does that then affect your willingness to move? Your ability to develop your cognition? Your readiness to connect your mind with your body?

Movement for processing works for me, better than no-movement, but these kinds of things need to be weighed in. I often react strongly to movement as well and end up being overwhelmed.

So – as in autism – maybe there is some kind of spectrum here too? My way of being autistic is that I have too much of everything (except the ability to process – my working memory is not that brilliant, I think it has declined too, with all that information rushing towards me, my processing capacity get overwhelmed, and my brain literally hurts). Maybe there are people coming to trauma therapy too, that just do “too much”. Not on purpose, but because they function like that? Like me? Being exposed to “too much”, either from an external source of from an internal, makes me dissociate, go into shutdown, as a defense (and to be able to function), sometimes that shutdown takes a detour over panic and anxiety, but I almost always end up in shutdown and immobility. Until I am able to make myself move (out of it) again.

It is the same with mindfulness. I have had to adapt that too to me. My problem is not that I am not present (that is only a problem when I need to dissociate), but that I am too present…

Anyone with thoughts and good ideas around this?

I am trying to learn more about what I need, in contrast to what is usually advised. Knowing I cannot control my environment (or those in it). And my tendency to get overwhelmed strikes when I do not anticipate it. I am not so good at reading my own signals either. As I do need to be somewhat disconnected or dissociated to move around in the world, due to my extreme sensitivities and lack of filters.

And please do not shame me for this. I am not “over-reactive” or like to scare myself on purpose. I do not do it for attention and to get people to care for me. I am literally trying to navigate the world, be in it, work in in it, live in it… without being constantly overwhelmed and move between being in a state of overwhelm and a state of dissociation. Or live like a hermit. I do like people…

I do recognize these fluctuations. Nowadays I can feel every step of phase of them (even if there are no signals to action from them). I do a lot to help myself. But this, finding a pause button to my processing – I have not managed to do.

Note. In this case I do talk about processing of traumatic memories, but my whole “thought apparatus” = brain) functions like this. I simply cannot find the “controls” to it. So I have to somehow adjust what comes into it… Find strategies for that.

I go through all my senses and see how I can support myself. Do my glasses impact me? (I think so, I want to go back from using progressive lenses to ordinary lenses for only my shortsightedness, as my eyes gets too tired from shifting between seeing through different part of my lenses. And the tension in my neck and shoulders from this is giving me severe pain). I have bought (and been gifted) an array of ear plugs and devices to monitor sound input. I take off my glasses to rest and reset. I am mindful of textiles and textures of tastes and smells, of touch. It helps against external input, but not internal. I sense what goes on in me as well, and that doesn’t rest either. I cannot, e.g. turn of the sounds from my own beathing, my blood pumping in my veins, my joints making all kinds of noises, my stomach… well… the inside of a body is not a silent place… (or smell, taste, touch-less)

I had to figure out why traditional advice for grounding did not work for me… but instead triggered me further.

Me moving between states gets worse when already tired, stressed or scared. I do my best to monitor rest, sleep etc, to remember to take breaks. But it is as if when my brain has increased its pace – and information flows in from everywhere, there is nothing stopping it, besides exhaustion.

So – anyone? Any ideas?

Disclaimer:

See this text as me exploring my own experiences. I do study cognitive science, and I have thought about, written about, dissociation, severe childhood trauma and therapy before., I read a lot, also scientific articles, I think A LOT… yet – I repeat, so it is clear, this is me writing from my perspective. I do not claim anyone else’s thoughts, knowledge, or experiences to be wrong.

 

[i] “The mental invention of an experience that at least in some respects resembles the experience of actually perceiving an object or an event either in conjunction with, or in the absence of, direct sensory stimulation”

Seeing something in the mind’s eye (Finke, 1989)

[ii] The Intense World Theory – a unifying theory of the neurobiology of autism” (Makram & Makram, 2010)

Text and Picture are copyright protected © Katarina Lundgren 2022

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