When Reprocessing Starts but “Fizzles” in the First Few Sets

It is not unusual for a client to “go blank” at some point during reprocessing.  He may suddenly report, “I don’t know what I’m noticing” or “I don’t feel anything right now.”

When noticing “nothing” occurs very early in reprocessing (particularly in new clients), this information may be helpful:

  • A completely appropriate initial response is to simply ask the client to notice that he doesn’t notice anything right now. [Often allowing the client to notice “nothing” will give him the time to access the memory again on his own during the next set.  He may start to notice things.]
  • One or more of these things may have occurred between the completion of the setup and the start of first few sets:
    • The client may be focusing on the sensation of the bilateral stimulation itself and may have been distracted from the target. This is particularly likely if the client is new to reprocessing. [If you suspect this, redirect the client to target and encourage him to just notice what comes.  Maybe extend the length of the initial sets to allow the client to adjust to what is occurring.]
    • The client may need more time than you provided him to find a workable “entryway” into the memory network. The client may have accessed the memory network in an abstract way during EMDR phases one through three, but it may take him a minute to access it in a detailed way during reprocessing.  [Ask if the client needs more time on the next set.  Encourage the client to return to the target and to notice what comes up.]
    • The client may be experiencing performance anxiety related to what he thinks he “should be” noticing, which can serve as an initial block to activation and noticing. [Encourage the client to simply “play” the target or memory and notice what comes up, even if what comes up is nothing.]
    • The client may have quickly “switched” the channel from the memory itself to thoughts about the memory. When the thought channel becomes activated in the first few sets of a session, it often serves as a block to reprocessing.  When asked about what occurred before the client noticed “nothing,” I had one client report “I was thinking that things happen for a reason, so it must be somehow okay that I had to go through this.”  Another client reported “I was thinking that the memory is silly, because a lot of people have had much worse things happen to them.”  Again such thoughts are likely to function as blocks, particularly when they occur very early in reprocessing.  [Encourage the client to go back to target and ask the client to simply notice what comes up, without pushing or pulling anything.  If the blocking thought reappears, you may need to target the blocking belief that underlies that thought.]
  • The client may be struggling to notice what is happening because he has very little experience noticing or recognizing bodily sensations below the panic range. Many clients that you will see are acutely aware of bodily sensations when they are in the panic zone, but sensations just below that intensity may be “invisible” to him.  Ideally, you should identify and develop skills around this as a part of client preparation. [If you suspect that the client is bodily activated, but that the activation is just below the client’s “radar,” you can ask the client if he notices any “knot, pressure, tension, or movement in the body… even if it’s not that strong.”  You can ask the client to try to “increase the sensitivity of what you are noticing.”  If the client is able to identify something, ask the client to focus on it and to notice it.]
  • Per standard protocol, we ask the client to start reprocessing on the body sensation channel. The client may be expecting to notice something specific in his or her body, but may not notice anything that he can name.  [Sometimes it is helpful to check to see if something is coming on another channel and use that information to clarify what might be happening in the body.  For instance, you can ask about the emotions that the client may be experiencing right now related to that target.  If the client is able to identify an emotion, ask the client where he feels that emotion right now in his body.  Clients new to EMDR may struggle to recognize how an emotion like anger sits in his body and realizing that he is angry first might open the awareness of where that anger is being held in the body.]
  • It’s always possible that noticing “nothing” can be the result of dissociative processes. As you do more EMDR with clients, it will likely be easier for you to identify dissociation.  Dissociation is a natural and expected part of reprocessing for many clients.  [If you suspect that a client noticing “nothing” is a function of dissociation, you can ask: “How present do you feel right now?” or “How in your body do you feel right now?”  See the topic: Dissociation in EMDR for more information (coming soon).]

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