EMDR and Preverbal Infant Trauma: My Experience So Far

In talking to a fellow pyloric stenosis survivor about EMDR, she wondered whether it could help folks like us who experienced such early trauma–stomach surgery for pyloric stenosis, typically 10 days to 6 weeks after birth, without anesthesia or pain control. She understood that EMDR helps people reprocess memory connections in the cortex, that part of the brain associated with verbal abilities and memories linked to time, but did not know whether memory connections laid down in preverbal life, before one is able to talk or remember things in a traditional sense, could be reprocessed. Maybe things we learned as infants are hardwired, unable to change.

So what types of memory do infants have?  Emotional memory; sense-memory as in visual images, physical sensations, sounds, tastes, and smells. Body, skin, muscle memory; implicit memory–the sense of ourselves in space, the movements we make, and what we remember as a result. I’m sure there are more aspects as well.

I’ve been working on my preverbal infant trauma in EMDR therapy for the past six months, and I am finding relief. Sometimes the relief is instantaneous and other times, it takes several sessions of working on an issue. These days in therapy, I am focused on my propensity to hold my breath or breathe very shallowly when I’m doing quiet activities, such as reading, resting, or watching a video. My head goes numb, tension grips my arms and legs, and my torso goes board-like. It’s as if I’m breathing  through a very narrow channel, my chest barely rising with inhale. It’s a kind of fugue state, if you will, and is related to trying to survive life-threatening pain and trauma during and after my surgery at twenty-six days old. Back then, I’m sure it hurt like hell to take a nice, big belly breath. And I’m sure I was literally scared to death–before surgery, I was dying, I’ve been told. But it is many decades later! I want relief because breathing shallowly and being encased in a rigid body is uncomfortable, limiting, and deeply disturbing. I want more freedom!

To work on this, the EMDR therapist begins by asking me to rate my discomfort on this issue from one to ten. Then, I purposely assume the constricted position. The therapist moves the wand back and forth; I follow with my eyes and find myself back in some very ancient terror. Absolute terror is all I can call it. Then my mind starts processing. I ‘hear’ a scream. My whole body wants to scream and I imagine a screaming baby. Tears may come. Breath breaks through, expanding my chest and I feel some relief. But then I go back into constriction. My eyes are still moving back and forth, following the wand. Inside, I feel as if I’m locked into my body and am afraid to come out–feelings I’ve felt off and on all my life. These are the types of emotions and physical sensations I am processing. The therapist stops at various points in this work to check with me. At this time, I explain what I’ve been experiencing. Sometimes, she will make a suggestion; other times, she simply returns to wanding. At the very end of the session, I rate my discomfort again, and it’s usually a one or two, down from nine or ten.

I remember one day after working on these issues in therapy, I had to go to the grocery store. For the first time in forever, I felt happiness walking around the aisles–the joy of swinging my arms and moving in space. I felt happy passing others and not self-conscious as I’ve always felt. I was simply caught up in my own excitement flying around the aisles, exploring this new store, and enjoying the lightness I felt in moving. I was flowing, no longer on lockdown.

Back in 1952 in America, babies were very often intubated (a breathing tube pushed into one’s throat) and operated on without anesthesia. Anesthesia was thought dangerous for newborns and trained pediatric anesthesiologists were hard to find. Also, a perverse idea permeated the medical field–babies don’t feel pain. (If you want more info on this, search my archives for Dr. David Chamberlain and Drs. Anand and Hickey.) Before surgery, some babies were given a sugar cube to suck on, some alcohol, others a local anesthetic, and the lucky ones were given anesthesia. Not administering anesthesia or pain control, however, was very common. Many infants died of shock.

Can EMDR relieve the Post-traumatic Stress that results from preverbal infant trauma?  In my case, yes. Everyone is different though. In any case, EMDR is worth a try. Many of us have experienced lifelong symptoms without understanding why or finding relief. We’ve tried many ways to heal ourselves with varying degrees of success and failure. Why not try one more thing?  It’s tempting to say, I give up–there’s nothing else I can do. And here, I don’t blame you because you’re probably tired of trying. But if you haven’t tried EMDR, do. Try this one last thing. I don’t think it can hurt. You might find relief and freedom. You are worth it!



4 Responses to EMDR and Preverbal Infant Trauma: My Experience So Far

  1. Hi Wendy,

    Great to talk with you today! I’m not sure I’ve read this latest blog entry but it’s just what I need as I am finally starting to do this deeper emdr work.

    Thank you so much..so many ways I’ve felt so freakish in my life,sorting and parsing to the core issues and getting to truly deal with it is such a gift everyone deserves.So glad you’ve created this blog to honor this space for everyone!


    • Hey Jen, You are awesome. Your comment is beautifully articulated. Yes, “freakish” is certainly how I’ve felt–outside, isolated, misfit-ish, unlovable, weird, different in a not-good way. The EMDR gets to the deep neuronal connections that keep us prisoners in these false beliefs and cracks them open so that we can make new healthy associations. For me, EMDR is creating, in a way, a new brain–a better, smarter, more authentic brain. It’s the brain of who I truly am, not who my trauma made me. I love how you write “sorting and parsing to the core issues and getting to truly deal with it is such a gift everyone deserves.” Yes, yes! It’s what I wish for everyone–ways to emerge from trauma-life and find sane-life. Thanks for commenting and sharing your thoughts. It means a lot too me. Wendy

  2. I just found you online and its nothing short of a miracle. In 1953 I had dry ice treatment and radiation with no anesthesia on a hema angioma. I always attributed my chronic terror to later events but suspected that the symptoms had an earlier origin. The deeper I explore the more I realize how much shock trauma I have been living with. I would like to try EMDR and hope I can find an experienced practitioner. Thank you for speaking out. Marcia

    • I too am so glad you found me online. What a horrifying treatment that you underwent. And no anesthesia! These types of experiences express themselves in strange somatic ways, I’ve discovered. I do think of them as what Fred, another commenter, regarded as “ghastly ghosts.” “Chronic terror,” chronic anxiety, chronic symptoms that are hard to track back to a preverbal event. Yet somatic memory, emotional memory, visual and auditory memory, implicit memory–all these keep signaling that we lived through something horrible. I am so happy you found this material. May it serve you well and may you find relief, comfort, peace, and compassion for yourself as you go forward in this process.

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