Praxis Blog

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

The following is an excerpt from an interview with Laurel Parnell, PhD conducted by Guy Macpherson, PhD on the Trauma Therapist Podcast. The full podcast recording is available below.

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.

My goal here on this podcast is basically to squeeze as much inspiration out of you as I can. And one of the ways I do that is: I want to hear your story. How did you get into this field?

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. I thought it was through becoming a medical doctor.

So, I was pre-med 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. My journey has always been the integration of psychology and spirituality. 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 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?

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 Vipassana early retreat with Jack Cornfield and Joseph Goldstein back in 1976. 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 Jung 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:        

So, let’s talk about EMDR specifically because again. You were 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.

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.

What I call Resource Tapping or Resource Installation is a way [to generate ego strength and affect tolerance]. What we do with it is we activate through imagination the neural nets that we want to strengthen more of: empowerment, safety, self-esteem, nurturing figures, protective figures. 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. What we’re doing here is we’re purposely, specifically, activating what we’re wanting to cultivate more of. We 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. 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 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. 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 what was done to them as a child by perpetrators. We 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. 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, we’re really focusing on the importance of the relationship and creating trust and safety and not having it be 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.

Listen to the full interview here.

Join Laurel Parnell, PhD for Attachment-Focused EMDR for Addiction in New Orleans