Alex Rankin, LMFT, LPC – Living Wholehearted Clinical Supervisor

In 1997, a little known Italian actor and director named Roberto Benigni released the film La Vita è Bella, translated into English as Life is Beautiful, to international acclaim. Wikipedia describes the movie with an oxymoron that may seem incomprehensible to many: “a holocaust comedy-drama film” (Roberto_Benigni, 2021). Nevertheless, the film progresses as billed, and rather than offering delusions of a perfect life, it instead promotes one’s ability and determination to focus on beauty in spite of pain.

Without question, we all endure hardship; sometimes those hardships conspire to blot out all light by residence filling our hearts and imaginations with only thoughts of darkness and despair. Trauma distorts our most basic beliefs along with our identity, while exploiting our vulnerabilities in ways that standard coping tools just can’t keep up with. PTSD, depression, anxiety and other challenges and illnesses become uninvited, long-term residents inside our psyches, directly limiting our capacity to see beauty in spite of thorns.

Whether this describes part of your story, or perhaps the predicament of someone you know, we can all identify with it in degrees. It is for this reason that much therapy focuses on the process of bringing light back into darkness, and healing in the face of hardship.

How is this accomplished?

Rediscovering light, even in the midst of total darkness, is first accomplished by the grace of God. After all, God is the creator of light and the overcomer of darkness. Secondly, individual success in this endeavor happens through a variety of methods aimed at reducing the intensity of distress associated with an experience, ultimately making sense of the senseless, in so far as we are able to.

At Living Wholehearted, we fervently believe that the needs of the whole person — body, soul, spirit, and mind — must be attended to at a root level in order to restore health, meaning, and purpose to one’s life. One method of pursuing this is through the utilization of Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR).

EMDR is an empirically backed treatment that focuses on reducing reactivity to reminders of distressing events, and activating natural, adaptive processing systems to resolve the disruption caused by traumatic events. Bilateral stimulation of the brain (in the form of visual stimuli, eye movements, tapping, or audio feedback) is used to promote the natural metabolization of hardship that has been blocked by negative beliefs about the situation or oneself.

Often, when we endure pain we take on beliefs that cause us to doubt our perceived safety. We question our brokenness, guilt, ability to be loved, etc., hindering our ability to heal. Instead, we filter our experience and memory in accordance with tainted beliefs based in trauma, and struggle to make sense of what we endured. EMDR helps bring these beliefs, doubts and questions to light so that we can identify the harmful connections made between events and/or past experiences that inform them. Once identified, the therapist and client can re-story these events in meaningful and constructive ways by identifying alternate and adaptive positive beliefs, freeing the individual to resolve the distress experienced each time they are triggered or re-lived.

The basic mechanics operate on a similar brain process of adapting to an unpleasant smell over time (like onions or permanent markers), allowing even anxiety provoking stimuli (or phobias) to be tolerated as well. As we adapt in manageable, guided stages and with safe measures in place, the stimuli becomes less bothersome and less disruptive, eventually minimizing or eliminating associated distress altogether. There are many forms of such “exposure therapies” deployed in daily practice to address all sorts of challenges. Uniquely, EMDR allows for this effect to occur more efficiently as it is more targeted than simply revisiting the stressor repeatedly until it is no longer as problematic. In essence, you and your mind determine what needs to be targeted and prioritize that, rather than the therapist targeting all things equally.

Furthermore, because EMDR engages the body and mind, in speaking to central beliefs and constructs about self and the human experience, our clinicians are able to explore the implications on faith, soul, and spirit that routinely accompany tragedy and pain, much like the main character in the Oscar award winning film, Life is Beautiful. The end goal of EMDR is similar to that of Benigni, a protective father sheltering his young son from the horrors of a concentration camp. By restoring confidence and one’s ability to see the beauty in life no matter the circumstances, we move ever closer to fostering resilience, increasing “wholehearted” living, and realizing the idea that Italians refer to as “La Vita è Bella.”