Trauma Therapist Podcast: Interview with Dr. Laurel Parnell on Attachment-Focused EMDR

Guy Macpherson:                                   

Alright guys, welcome back to the Trauma Therapist Podcast. I’m very excited to have as my guest today Dr. Laurel Parnell. Laurel, welcome.

Laurel Parnell:                                          

Thank you. It’s great to be here.

Guy Macpherson:                                   

Alright, so Doctor Parnell is a clinical psychologist and Director of Parnell Institute for EMDR . Where the world’s leading experts in eye movement desensitization and reprocessing. She’s originator of EMDR related therapies; Attachment-Focused EMDR and Resource Tapping. Laurel is the author of several books and videos on EMDR, including Rewiring the Addicted Brain, Attachment-Focused EMDR; Healing Relational Trauma, and a Therapist Guide to EMDR and Tapping. Alright Laurel, just obviously a bit about you and share with our listeners where you’re from, where you’re calling from. And then let’s, let’s do it.

Laurel Parnell:              

So I’m calling you from San Rafael, California. I’m in the San Francisco Bay area.

Guy Macpherson:        

Nice. Okay. And where are you from originally?

Laurel Parnell:              

The San Francisco Bay area. Yeah.

Guy Macpherson:        

Okay. Alright, so let’s start out here. You know, as you said before we started recording here. You’ve been doing this for a while. My goal here on this podcast, I forgot to tell you this before we started recording. Really, it’s basically the squeeze as much inspiration out of you as I can. And one of the ways I do that is by I want to hear your story. How did you get into this field? So, let’s start out, share that story and things will unfold. We’re going to talk about everything EMDR, but let’s start there.

Laurel Parnell:              

So, you know, the question is how did I get into the trauma field? And I think what happened, it goes back way back when I was 16, I was part of an organization called Los Amigos de Las Americas and I was trained in giving vaccinations and basic medical care. And when I was sent to a village in Guatemala, in the highlands of Guatemala with another girl who was 17, and we vaccinated 1,400 people in the village. We were the only medical people except for a nurse that went to the clinic, vaccinated people, went into the highlands way up in the area where people didn’t even speak Spanish and there was a bus wreck. We patched the people up, set a dislocated shoulder, we did all of this and I fell in love with the people in Guatemala. I was speaking Spanish fluently and I feel like this is what I wanted to do with my life was to heal people, help people. II thought it was through becoming a medical doctor. So, I was Premed in college, but also I was a psychology major. And so, along the way I also was introduced to Buddhism when I was 17. And I felt like I’d come home when I began meditation and the teaching of basically who you are is not your conditioning it’s to find, you know, what’s behind the thoughts, all of that. And so, my journey has always been the integration of psychology and spirituality. And then, I ended up getting into psychology graduate school. I went to CSPP, when it was in Berkeley, got my doctorate in psychology and then all of my clinic work, you know, this is, I’ve been in the business now for 40 years. It’s scary. My son, I was pregnant with my oldest son when I was in graduate school. So I was, I was having a kid and I was in graduate school and he’s 40 years old now. So that’s how I knew how long ago it was and, in those days, there really wasn’t much of a trauma field at all. And we just were seeing traumatized people. And I worked in Headstart in East Contra Costa County. And I remember one child just really stood out for me it was a young black girl who was like nine years old and had been raped by someone. And I remember just not knowing what to do and I was supposed to know what to do, but how, what you do with a child who’s been through something like that? And so, through all of my years of work, I’ve worked in clinics, I’ve worked in San Francisco Mission District with Children and Families. I worked in Vallejo. My path has always been working with underserved populations and also integrating Spanish language, and also Buddhist practice. So, I have been involved with Tibetan Buddhism and as well as [inaudible] early retreat with Jack Cornfield and Joseph Goldstein back in 1976. My first [inaudible], right. So, way back when I was sitting with them and I just really took to the practices. So, integrating psychology and spirituality all along the way and then to train psychodynamically. So psychodynamically as well as I was trained at the [inaudible] Institute of San Francisco. So, imagery has always been really important to me. Dreamwork imagery, working with young conscious mind, all of that, those are kind of the threads. And then in 1991, I was introduced to EMDR and, it was extraordinary because I felt like finally, I have something that really works to heal trauma. I mean, I was doing good work, I think with the talking therapies that I was able to do, but I always felt the limitation. And EMDR was like the key to really help people move beyond, you know, the flashbacks and nightmares, and places they were really stuck. So that’s a little bit about my past.

Guy Macpherson:        

Wow. Fascinating. And very similar to my own in the sense of bringing in integration of spirituality and psychology, specifically trauma work. So, let’s talk about EMDR specifically because again, as we, you know, you were talking about before we started recording, you’re saying that the brand of EMDR you do is a little different. People may not be familiar with that and more generally, what EMDR is. So why don’t we start there.

Laurel Parnell:          

Yeah. So EMDR stands for eye movement desensitization reprocessing and it was, it’s a trauma therapy that was developed by psychologist Francine Shapiro back in the mid-eighties. And it has a structure and a form that has been very helpful except for it requires modifications if it’s applied to a broader range of population. So basically, what we do with EMDR is this, we activate the memory network where the trauma’s stored with the image, the emotion, the body sensations, and the thoughts or beliefs that got frozen in time at the time of the trauma. And then we add alternating bilateral stimulation. So, what I mean by that, in the early days, it was all eye movements. Follow the eyes back and forth. But we found that other forms of alternating bilateral stimulation also work like, auditory stimulation that goes back and forth or tactile stimulation. So, what this bilateral stimulation seems to do is it unfreezes what’s been frozen in the brain and allows the mind and the body to begin to move that traumatized, that frozen information out of the system.

So the person experiences, thoughts and feelings and body sensations and waves of experience. And then they come to the end of a wave, we check in, what’s happening. They tell us their experience. We continue. So, what’s happening is we line up the memory network. We add this bilateral stimulation, they move towards health and wholeness. The emotional distress goes down, the positive view goes up. They have a broader perspective on what happened. I call it, I say we move from psychological memory to objective memory. You move from what’s held in an emotionally self-referential way. This happened to me and it feels important and self-defining. To it happened, it’s in the past. It’s amazing. And, but to do EMDR, the person has to be able to tolerate high levels of affect, uncomfortable thoughts and feelings, and trust, to kind of let themselves go into this movement of process. And the therapist has to have an affect tolerance and be able to hold the space and be able to go. So basically, what we’re doing is we’re aligning with the natural healing system that resides in the client through natural wisdom. If you want to see the Buddha that’s within. So, we’re aligning with their own essential wisdom and we’re focusing and following the emotional distress and the places of holding that are still locked in the mind and the body. So that’s kind of EMDR in a nutshell. In order to do EMDR, the person has to have enough ego strength, affect tolerance, they have to be able to trust to drop into these places and they have to also have emotional charge. And I’ll come back to that in a minute.

What I call Resource Tapping or Resource Installation is a way. What we do with it is we activate through imagination the neural nets that we’re wanting to strengthen more of, empowerment, safety, self-esteem, nurturing figures, protective figures. Like talk about the four foundational resources. So, imagine a peaceful place, a place you can imagine that makes you feel at ease. So, by imagining, we’re lighting up these neural pathways and then we use short amounts of bilateral stimulation that links that information into the broader neural nets. So instead of lighting it up and then following processed, doing adaptive resolution, what we’re doing here is we’re purposely, specifically, activating what we’re wanting to cultivate more of, light it up and then we link it up with bilateral simulation. And so, this, we do typically, to strengthen people before doing this more intensive work. Well, what we discovered is that for some people they need a lot more of the strengthening before we drop them into the trauma networks. And that is a lot of what my particular brand of EMDR, I call Attachment-Focused EMDR is about, we really believe in creating much more client safety. And we found that through use of imagination and bilateral simulation, we can begin to repair the developmental deficits that the person experienced because of insecure attachment. Right? So, if they never got love, they never had security growing up. What we have are not places that are activated and lit up, what we have our places of absence. It’s like they don’t have this internal infrastructure to hold them. And so, what we’re doing is we can create a new mother, a new father, a new version of development if they can imagine it. Or if they’re LGBTQ, they can imagine the form of family that would work for them, where they feel loved and accepted and welcomed. And so, they can imagine what they need. And then with bilateral stimulation, begin to fill it in. So, this is what I’ve added to EMDR and we called Attachment-Focused. It’s, it’s repairing the developmental deficits, using imagination and bilateral simulation in a way that gives them this kind of infrastructure that they’re missing inside. So, this is a, you know, a quick one. So, I’ve got Attachment-Focused in my books and you know, I’ve got different information on this. And so, this is kind of the addition to EMDR. 

Guy Macpherson:       

Okay. So, let me just kind of go back here. So, if I’m hearing you clearly you were making a distinction between the EMDR where they could have used the trauma, and then your brand, which kind of addresses more the, almost what happened before the trauma, the attachment or lack thereof?

Laurel Parnell:              

It’s both. So, what I’m calling Attachment-Focused EMDR there are four main, the main principles of it. It’s so we really believe in creating safety, which means we add more of these resources before we draw people into the trauma network. So, we do a lot more stabilization and safety creating, it’s client centered. So, what we’re doing is based on the needs of the individual rather than here’s what we’re doing to you. What we’re going to do is we’re going to discover together what works best. Do you want to use eye movements? Do you want to use tapping? Do you want to use auditory simulation? Where would you like me to sit? Do you want to speak so you can process or do you want to be silent? So, it’s all about discovering what’s going to work for the individual rather than imposing something on them. So that’s the client centered approach and we really believe in the importance of therapeutic relationship, that the therapeutic relationship is the foundation of what we’re doing. And you have to have a safe therapeutic relationship. That therapeutic relationship creates a collective emotional experience for the client so that when they’re feeling safe with the therapist, the therapist is listening and attuning to them specifically. That’s reparative inherently. And so that’s important.

And then we do this Resource Tapping that I’ve described for the repair of the developmental deficits, and we do a modified version of EMDR which eliminate some of those scales so that it’s more client-centered, smooth going. And it’s like, it’s more technical than I should probably talk about, but it’s a much easier, more adaptive way of using this, where the client doesn’t feel objectified and measured so much. Because so many people who’ve had a lot of trauma, if you start measuring them, they feel like you’re doing to them like what was done to them as a child by perpetrators. So, want to make them feel safe with us by not imposing something on them. So, it’s much more adaptive, it’s much more culturally sensitive. It’s listening, and it’s a combination of, well, some people need more strengthening, some people need this creation of new family, new internal structures and EMDR on the traumas. So, we can go back and forth.

Guy Macpherson:     

Yeah. It’s really interesting to hear you talk Laurel, about the importance of the therapeutic relationship and the client relationship and so forth. I mean, obviously that’s something we talk a lot about on this podcast, but you know, people often talk about EMDR as being that thing that really has made a difference in a lot of clinicians and clients lives, but also to hear you talk about yes. But also, we’re really focusing on the importance of the relationship and creating trust and safety and not having it be this, this intervention that we are imposing on the client. I mean, to me that just almost seems like you’re creating the best of both worlds, if you will.

Laurel Parnell:              

Well, I’m coming from the world that I’ve been in for 40 years, which is working with people you know, and recognizing what everybody needs. Everybody needs to feel safe and they need to feel safe in their experience, in their therapy itself. And I think the problem with what’s happening in our field in general is this focus on evidence based, is losing what holds it all together, which is a therapeutic relationship. You can get a good result. But what was the client experience in that? Were they terrified? Were they pushed beyond what they felt to safe in? I think if you’re doing three sessions, you know for like a car accident or something that doesn’t link to a lot of other things, then it’s not as important. But if you’re going to see them over time to repair earlier traumas, deep-seeded anxiety, self-esteem issues, really core things. The therapeutic relationship is essential. It’s part of what makes it all hold together. And I think what happens is we’re constantly taking in implicitly the healing power, that therapeutic relationship. So, when you feel heard, when you feel cared about, when the therapist is adapting according to your needs rather than imposing something, that’s healing, that’s part of what is healing, isn’t it? And I think that goes in to change how you feel inside. I am cared about in this relationship.

Guy Macpherson:       

Right, right. Crucial, crucial. So, you know, given that and given how important it is for the clinician, the therapist to have done and continue to do their own inner work. Let’s talk about you specifically because it sounded like you kind of, you know, connected with this with Buddhism and looking inward from the very early on stage. But when you started doing, you know, therapy and specifically working with people who have been impacted by trauma, what was it like for you? What was that process for you, for your own self about, wait a minute, you know, I’m becoming triggered here or I’m wanting to, I’m finding myself wanting to push or heal or fix and understand? Moving through that. What was that like for you Laurel?

Laurel Parnell:               

The pre EMDR?

Guy Macpherson:       

Yeah, just kind of what-

Laurel Parnell:              

I’ve been doing EMDR since 1991 so it’s a lot. I have to really go back there, but I can tell you one of the biggest things that changed. I remember, I remember driving, so I worked in Vallejo in the Community Mental Health with Children and Families. I remember driving home to, I lived in Kensington in [inaudible] at that time, driving home crying because of the horrors of what I was listening to. I won’t even tell you the horrible stories I was hearing and feeling so powerless to help people. It was devastating and I would have all of that live in my body and in my mind after sessions, and I felt like there was only so much I could do. After EMDR, I was no longer having that, because what happens is the therapist has the client clear the stuff out of their nervous system. You the therapist feel it clear out of you too, right? So as they move this horror from the, they keep seeing this thing over and over again, to it’s out of their mind and they’re moving forward and it’s dropped from like a multicolor image that’s, you know, full of horror to them, to something that’s black and white that feels like it happened a long time ago, and not connected to them. The therapist experiences that simultaneously. So, I’m not living with that stuff in me as I was. And in my trainings, I do trainings all the time and I use my cases in my trainings and I say, I know this is hard to hear, but what I’m coming from is all the people I’m talking about got better. So, I’m not living with that same experience in my nervous system as I was pre EMDR. It’s a, it’s a big difference. You don’t feel so powerless. Yeah.

Guy Macpherson:       

Yeah, yeah. Thanks for clarifying that. Just want to remind everyone here that I’m speaking with Dr. Laurel Parnell. Your site, I’m going to have listed up here on the show notes page, is called the Parnell Institute. It’s P, a r n e l l E M D R.com. Now that list would appear in the show notes page at the Trauma Therapists Podcast.com. And so, several books you’ve got under your belt here, Rewiring the Addicted Brain, Attachment-Focused EMDR, and a Therapist’s Guide to EMDR and Tapping. In addition to that-

Laurel Parnell:              

Tapping in.

Guy Macpherson:       

Tapping in. Thank you. And in addition, you’re doing a lot of workshops, so let’s, where would you like to focus here? With the understanding that a lot of people listening here would love to learn about EMDR. Where do they jump in? How can they jump in? What would you say?

Laurel Parnell:               

Well, if they’re a therapist, then go to my website, ParnellEMDR.com because you’ll find the list of trainings and workshops there and that’s where you’ll see what we’re doing. And I want to say that what we’re doing is quite different from what other trainers are doing. So, we’re all teaching the same basic curriculum but how we do it is quite different. And that I teach modifications of the protocol according to the needs of the individual. I teach this more Attachment-Focused way of working. I believe most of the other trainers are teaching more of the very structured, more rigid approach. So, it’s not all the same. And I think that the reputation that EMDR has is more of a technique that’s imposed on people. I think that’s what you’re coming from. So that’s what’s really different. And I don’t in any, in any way mean disrespect to the other excellent teachers out there. I just have, we just have a different approach. And so, if people are looking for a more attachment focused, relational approach, that’s what our institute specializes in. And I have other trainers who are working in this way also. And if your listeners would like a referral for someone who works in this way, our website also has a find a therapist function for people trained in our way. And we also the list of our faculty, most of our faculty are in California or New York. We’re kind of east coast, west coast, with some in the middle, some in Canada, some in the UK, but that’s mostly where we’re focused.

Guy Macpherson:        

Okay. Awesome. Awesome. Awesome. In terms of workshops, are you doing online and in person, both or what?

Laurel Parnell:           

Yeah, I do. I do webinars. I do online, in person. We’re having a big conference. It’s going to be in the Bay area in Burlingame in October. So, you might take a look at that. That’s, that’s the big thing we’re doing. I’m also, I have this new book is called Rewiring the Addicted Brain. And really, again, I’m coming to this from the trauma field. So much, so many people with attachment trauma, with childhood trauma, end up with addictions. We’ve got to address that. So I came up with a model for working with addictions from this perspective, using EMDR and EMDR related techniques that the Rewiring the Addicted Brain book I wrote for people in the field in general who are not EMDR trained, using these Resource Tapping techniques, to really work on what’s at the root of this and you know, getting at if they’re using substances or behaviors to manage unmanageable feelings, we got to deal with what those feelings are and give the person some techniques for working with those. As well as addressing those attachment wounds through repair and the traumas. Right? So, there’s, the book has got a lot of ways to work with that and motivation, and all of that.

Guy Macpherson:       

You know, yesterday I was interviewing a gentleman who’s been working in the field for 40 years. He specializes in working with veterans. And he said when he first started out, you know, he was doing CBT and talk therapy. And the found that, not surprisingly, a lot of it wasn’t working with this particular population. And then he found, he was introduced to EMDR and things just really just exploded for him. And one of the things he said, and I’m kind of interested in your feedback on this too, is that one of the reasons why it did help him and why a lot of veterans took to it is that it really didn’t push them or force them to talk about their experiences. It allowed them to move into the healing process in a less shameful way. In a sense. What’s your experience with that?

Laurel Parnell:              

Yeah, exactly. It works for firefighters, first responders, police. A lot of people who don’t want to be in therapy and talk about their feelings and it’s so fabulous that way because what’s happening is talking about, trauma is stored in the right side of the brain. It’s left in fragmented form. Language is on the left side of the brain. When you’re traumatized, the left side, you know, shuts down, broken, this area shuts down. So, therapies that are asking people to talk about it, are lighting it up without processing it. That’s what Van de Kolk talks about this all the time. So, what happens with EMDR, when we line up the right hemisphere where the trauma stored and we’re adding bilateral simulation, and it begins this rapid processing effect. That goes faster than you could talk. So,  think of neural circuits. It’s the lining up these circuits. It’s going faster than many people could even speak it. And so, the talking isn’t helpful and it just moves, moves, moves, moves, and they just feel better or it feel, it goes from being right here to in the past. And they can speak or not speak. Some people feel better speaking, that it actually connects them better to it, we don’t tell them to do one or the other. Some people are holding secrets they cannot tell because they were in military intelligence or maybe their family was involved with the mob or something and it could endanger the therapist. So, and I’ve had these situations, therapists can’t know, so they don’t have to say, they can just allow it to move through themselves. So, it’s just wonderful that way. But at the end, they’re able to say in language, it’s in the past or I survived and that’s the integration.

Guy Macpherson:       

Right, right. Wow. Exciting. Inspiring too. Alright Laurel, what’s a go to book recommendation that you would have for our listeners, whether trauma related or not, or EMDR related or not, we’re going to have all your books listed up at the Show Notes page, but anything that has inspired you particularly or you think?

Laurel Parnell:               

Well, I think two books that are really important. The first one you may or may not recognize is Alice Miller’s Drama of the Gifted Child. That book is so inspiring and so helpful because what she’s saying is that for many people, the trauma is that they weren’t allowed to be who they were. They had to be who their parents wanted them to be. Are you familiar with Drama of the Gifted Child?

Guy Macpherson:       

Can you see my hands.

Laurel Parnell:              

Yay. Yeah, you’re raising your hand. Yes. So, she’s saying that it’s not the big stuff. It’s the not being seen, not being attuned to, where you had to be who your parents wanted you to be, or you risked being abandoned, cast out. And so, the child becomes an expert at figuring out what the parent wants them to be and abandons themselves. So, a lot of people are dealing with this lack of integration of a sense of self and its inner emptiness. So, the beauty of EMDR is when we do it in an Attachment-Focused way where we’re not imposing something on them, is we’re helping them integrate a sense of self. They can, here’s what I feel, here’s what I know, rather than what should I know? What should I feel? And it begins to decrease the anxiety because they’re integrating who they are and they’re coming to know who they are. So, I just, that book is so important for therapists as well as the general public because I mean, I recognized it when I was in graduate school. We were all reading it and going, oh my gosh, oh my gosh, oh my gosh, this is me. And then the other one is Bessel Van der Kolk’s, The Body Keeps the Score. I so happy that he got that book out because this really explains trauma and how it affects the mind and the body.

Guy Macpherson:      

Awesome. Yeah. Great. So, again, the Drama of the Gifted Child by Alice Miller, and of course, The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel Van der Kolk. We’ll have those again, listed on the Show Notes Page at the TraumaTherapistPodcast.com. We will, Dr. Laurel’s website is ParnellEMDR.com, that’s P a r n e l l E M D R.com. Laurel, awesome speaking with you. Fascinating. I love the way this was kind of a mini intro master class into EMDR and specifically, Attachment related EMDR. We thank you so much for taking the time to do this. It was great having you on here.

Laurel Parnell:              

Oh, it’s my pleasure. It’s been great talking to you.

Guy Macpherson:       

All right. Take care.

Laurel Parnell:              

Okay, bye.

Join Laurel Parnell, PhD, at an EMDR Workshop!