First Annual Conference of the Parnell Institute: Laurel inspires in the Californian Redwoods

Mark Brayne with Laurel Parnell in the glorious Redwoods of Scotts Valley.

More than 100 delegates from across the US met for the recently established Parnell Institute’s first Annual Conference held at the 1440 Multiversity Conference Centre deep in the majestic redwoods of California’s Scotts Valley, just south of San Francisco. Mark Brayne, an EMDR Europe Consultant and Parnell Institute Facilitator, reports on the proceedings

The choice of venue could not have been more appropriate. Named for the 1440 precious minutes that make up each day, the 1440 Multiversity enabled us to use our time well, with plenaries and workshops facilitated by Dr Laurel Parnell, my now-fellow PI trainers and facilitators, and also Somatic Experiencing luminary Maggie Phillips.

Themes explored ranged from the body and spirituality in EMDR and the challenges of working with gender identity, and from how with EMDR we can rewire how dysfunctional early attachment experiences are stored in the brain to processing the primal wound of adoption and strategies for when an EMDR session “goes south” as the Americans say, or off the rails.

As many readers will know, I am an enthusiast for Dr Parnell’s model of what she calls Attachment-Focused EMDR, emphasising the importance of resourcing clients not just with a safe or calm place but also with Nurturing, Protector and Wise figures, allowing for simple modifications to Phase Three of the Standard Protocol, and encouraging the forensic and central use of bridging (which some prefer to call floatback or the affect bridge) for identifying the target memories that most effectively shift dysfunction.

My enthusiasm for her work has led me to bring Laurel Parnell to the UK where, over the past three years of our work together, she has trained more than 200 practitioners in an approach which has, it has to be acknowledged, attracted criticism from some quarters for perceived deviation from the Standard Protocol – a discussion perhaps better left to the EMDR UK & Ireland Association’s 2018 Annual Conference next March where I’m presenting a paper to explore this more fully.

EMDR, as I believe we all understand it, involves – after establishing safety in the therapeutic relationship and resourcing the client appropriately – accessing first of all a distressing memory which generates a presently held level of disturbance, identifying the components of image (if possible), cognitions, emotions and body sensations.

Then, simply summarised, EMDR Therapy stimulates this disturbing memory bilaterally using Dual Attention, facilitating clients’ awareness during their processing of the present as well as the past.

The aim, when done well, is to access and integrate the felt right-brain and often limbic-system memory – somatically in terms of subjective disturbance, and psychologically in terms of meaning – and in effect liberate clients from their traumatic past.

As our Association President Derek Farrell has helpfully phrased it in a JiscMail discussion, all the rest is detail.

Laurel in full cheerful flight at 1440 Multiversity, California.

Dr Parnell now has a richly-skilled team of colleagues helping her deliver her EMDRIA-accredited Parts One and Two trainings in the US, as well as the Part Three Advanced EMDR workshops she also brings to the UK, and in many a spirited and inspiring discussion in the Californian redwoods, we discussed the essential importance of new trainees internalising the standard procedural steps of EMDR, rather as anyone learning to dance properly must have the basic rhythms of Salsa, Lindy Hop, Waltz, Foxtrot and the rest, without which dance can be a mess of spills, confusion and trodden toes.

There was so much to find stimulating; here a few of the gems I brought home with me:

  • How, with proactive and imaginal interweaves at appropriate moments in Phase Four processing, a client-attuned EMDR therapist can help a client creatively repair even the very earliest attachment wounds. She can ask for example what the child ego state needs at critical moments of remembered trauma, and invite the client to imagine that different, warm, supportive, protective experience – with help if necessary from the imaginal resource team tapped in/installed earlier in Phase Two preparation. It doesn’t change what happened, but it can profoundly change how that experience is remembered in the brain.
  • Successful therapy relies not just on what the therapist does and what the client says, but how the client talks and what they do inside their bodies. We can search for more nuanced meanings – for example the sorrow in sadness;
  • From Somatic Experiencing, the extra question: ‘How present ARE you?’ ‘How do you know you feel distressed?’ Or, when relaxed, ‘How do you know it’s pleasing to you?’ The explicit reconnecting of body and mind with the goal of therapy, restated at the beginning of every session, can make such a difference.
  • Orient to the body, and – such a lovely interweave – ‘Bring your awareness to what you’ve just said, and let’s spend some time (or just hang out) with that.’
  • And, how about just inviting a client to ‘Notice your adult body,’ or to ‘Let that thought/awareness seep into your body like a slow rain…’
  • At the end of a powerful session, therapists might offer to place their stockinged feet gently over the client’s feet to ground them back to present reality – tender, and powerful.
  • Or to regulate arousal, clients might be encouraged to press their knees outwards with the palms of each opposite hands. Or, when processing, to stand up with tappers/buzzers under their feet.
  • And did you know a basic fact of evolutionary biology, that females when in danger orient to a person, where males orient to the source of the danger? Makes sense, but it was new to me.

The setting at Fourteen-Forty as the locals call it (financed by the way by a seriously rich internet power-couple from Silicon Valley just up the road – this is after all California) inspired us to think bigger, to revel in the power of the imagination.

Many of the techniques advocated by experienced trainers and facilitators seemed to have at their roots a wonderful and liberatingly holistic view of life, of the true nature of our mind-bodies or body-minds.

At the heart of attachment rupture is a splitting of that body and mind, and Dr Parnell’s Attachment-Focused EMDR has become, to me, a central and powerful way of using our amazingly powerful therapy to facilitate the essential repair work of trauma therapy.

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