Laurel Parnell in action, with James Thomas in the back row on the right…
James Thomas is an EMDR Focus facilitator in Attachment-Focused EMDR, and recently returned from a five-day training with Laurel Parnell in New York – continuing an annual tradition begun in 2015 when Mark Brayne was the first of our team to join the January training, followed in subsequent years by Shawn Katz and Annabel McGoldrick.
This is his report.
It’s January 2018, and after nearly 30 years of working in the mental health field, first as a CBT therapist and latterly with EMDR, I’m in New York with 43 other therapists from the US and Canada joining Laurel Parnell for an advanced workshop on ‘Transforming Trauma with EMDR’.
Already, I’m fascinated, amazed and awed by the power of EMDR in working with, as Bessel van der Kolk puts it, Bodies that Keep the Score.
Our training is held at the Open Center in central Manhattan, more used to hosting courses in meditation teaching and with a serenity to match.
For the next five days, I will listen, observe and especially also practise Laurel’s orientation to EMDR that I have come to admire from my initial introduction to her work in 2014.
The presentation is discussion-based, drawing on Laurel’s extensive practice of this approach, sharing suggestions and insights for our own client work from a broad spectrum of complex cases.
It takes courage to work with highly traumatised people, allowing us to act as compassionate witness to the most difficult stories as clients struggle towards recovery.
Laurel Parnell’s book ‘Attachment-Focused EMDR’ outlines the multi-layered ingredients of a ‘right-brain-to-right-brain’ connection in which the therapist promotes a reparative experience.
In New York I see this in action, offering choice to the client combined with gentle, accepting enquiry.
The Parnell approach places particular emphasis on safety, allowing clients to lead their therapy where possible.
Before getting to work on the traumas themselves, Laurel checks with clients how close they want the chairs to be, and the mode and timing for sets of bilateral stimulation, with plenty of space for non-verbal attunement and the therapist’s own ‘empathic resonance’ with their own inner experience as well as that of the client.
Key aspects of Laurel’s approach are highlighted and practised in the training (as therapist, client and observer), and I learn to appreciate the importance of a diverse team of imaginal resource figures and helpers, tapped in with bilateral stimulation to calm hypervigilance and help processing when it gets blocked.
It’s also enlightening to see how powerful the ‘bridging technique’ can be (adapted from hypnotherapy) to identify targets for trauma targets.
I can attest from my own practice as ‘client’ that bridging yields powerful and surprising results as we connect to early memories, creating a more generalising effect in the memory network.
Laurel Parnell working with EMDR Focus’s Mark Brayne at the Open Center in New York, January 2015
During our five days together, Laurel completes three demonstrations in front of the group, with trainees bringing their own real material to work on for a full hour-long session.
I watch as people process through early attachment difficulties, with the full range of cognitive, emotional and physical processing.
I witness gentle exploration, with the therapist as guide, but also allowing the client to know where they need to go.
We see a range of interweaves being creatively used throughout. Laurel returns to the processing target several times, which seems to both contain and help the client to notice cognitive and other shifts.
She gently enquires at several points whether there is more work on each piece.
Again, this supports the strong ethos of compassionate acceptance, and truly honouring the client’s ability to heal given the opportunity.
As sessions draw to a close I again notice the enhanced use of interweaves. This has been a key learning in my own practice when sessions are incomplete. With a strong resource team on board, I feel greater confidence to help the client work on really difficult past material and then ‘return’ to the safety of the room in the present day.
At the end of day five we close with a summary of what the group has learned, revisiting the learning ‘wish list’ we established at the start. All points have been fully explored.
The group’s feedback is very positive, and as I’ve seen on Laurels training before, more than one therapist has been pleasantly surprised that EMDR could ‘flow’ as freely as they have seen and experienced.
This certainly echoes my own experience, and as I begin the long trip home, I carry with me many learnings and new insights, and a renewed confidence and optimism which I can now bring to my work with clients as they discover integration, resilience, growth and greater connection.