What is EMDR Therapy?
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy is a treatment method started in the late 80s-early 90s, aimed to resolve emotional difficulties caused by disturbing, upsetting, or frightening life experiences. These can be big events such as abuse or witnessing violence or more common events such as divorce, school problems, peer difficulties, failures, experiencing hurricanes or other storms, and family problems. When an upsetting, scary, or painful experience happens, the memory can either process or it may remain “stuck” in the mind. When it remains stuck, the experience can have a negative impact on the person’s functioning as they affect his/her sense of security, self-esteem, and development. Some examples are having nightmares, avoiding situations, anxiety, depression, irritability, withdrawing from others, anger, guilt, and/or behavioral problems.
Most experts agree that one way to work through this and to clear out symptoms is through exposure to the traumatic experience, meaning to face the memories that are causing distress until they are no longer disturbing. EMDR Therapy combines elements of several other well-established clinical models together with “bilateral stimulation” to help the brain reprocess the traumatic memories by facing them. Bilateral stimulation refers to the use of alternating, right left tracking that may take the form of eye movements, tones or music delivered to each ear, or tactile stimulation, such as alternating hand taps. EMDR Therapy helps to process the troubling thoughts, feelings, and memories and as a result strengthens feelings of confidence, calmness and mastery so that a person can return to their normal developmental tasks. The memories will still be there, but the belief the person has about themselves due to the event will change to be neutral or positive and the emotional intensity will diminish as will the symptoms experienced due to them.
How is EMDR Therapy done?
In EMDR Therapy we do not go straight into processing negative life events. We must first assess to make sure that the approach will be a good therapeutic fit for you and the problem(s) you are hoping to resolve. We also want to make sure that you have all the skills necessary to be able to undergo the therapy and to process the information that might come up. In this way, we start first with working on skills that will be necessary to cope with feelings that are brought up in counseling during the process, especially since there may be times when we aren’t able to fully process a memory in just one session. Once those skills are mastered and the clinician determines you are ready to begin processing the difficult material that may come up, the trauma processing can begin.
We start first with identifying the current situation that is causing issues in your life and the thoughts and feelings surrounding the situation. We will then use that information to try to find the earliest memory that is related to this event and will start our trauma work at the earlier memory. The reason for starting at the earliest (related) memory is that the memories all become connected with the earliest being the root. If you were to pull up a weed and the root remains in the ground, the weed is likely to grow back in a short time. You must get the weed down at the root to prevent that same one from growing back. Trauma work is very much the same in that we have the best results when we process the root memory which affects all of the more recent memories that are related. Sometimes we would have never even guessed that the root memory is even connected to the current issue at all!
Once we have our timeline established we can start using the bilateral stimulation (eye movements, tones, or tactile stimulation) to help the brain process the memory in a healthy manner. We will bring up certain information associated with the memory and use the bilateral stimulation which will help keep you partly in the present moment and therefore helps you to feel safe while your brain processes the memory in the way it needs to. As the memory is processed, the thoughts and beliefs about it will begin to change. You may not feel positive about the traumatic event but you can have a sense that you can leave it in the past and that it no longer controls you, your behaviors, or how you see yourself. Once we have worked through the earliest memory we will begin to work through more recent memories until you have processed all memories related to the present issue. Many times, processing the earliest memory can have a positive impact on the more recent ones, making them quicker and easier to process.
After the negative memories are reprocessed in a healthy manner we move on to positive beliefs about yourself and helping you to identify more strongly with them. We can even work on possible future situations that could arise and help you imagine using new skills to navigate them successfully.
How Does EMDR Therapy Work?
It is not entirely clear at this time how EMDR Therapy works to help the brain reprocess memories. Researchers are continuing to investigate to be able to answer this question with more certainty. Many of the researchers believe that EMDR therapy works similarly to dreaming or REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, which is another time that we know our brain processes information. It is thought that the bilateral stimulation may help both hemispheres of the brain communicate to one another and therefore activates the body’s natural healing mechanisms. What we do know is that this therapy helps all of the information (sights, sounds, smells, tastes, emotions, sensations, and thoughts/beliefs) is accessed together and metabolized.
For more information you can visit the EMDRIA (EMDR International Association) website.