I’ve found that many of the clients who I’ve consulted with have some familiarity to EMDR therapy. Whether that’s from google searching therapy options or hearing about it from close friends or family. For some, however, EMDR is a completely new concept. Whatever the case is for you, what follows is almost always the same… “tell me more.”
I had the same reaction when I first heard of EMDR during my graduate program at UT. I was intrigued by my classmate’s enthusiasm as she shared her experience with EMDR therapy. She talked about the brain’s natural way of healing, eye movements, and the emotional relieve she evolved.
As a therapist, EMDR is part of my professional foundation being that just months after I graduated I began the EMDR basic training. Rather than an intervention, I see EMDR as a therapy modality. Over the years, I’ve used EMDR as a modality to treat stressors resulting from challenging reproductive experiences such as infertility, pregnancy losses, birth traumas, post-partum depression and anxiety among others.
Sooo what’s unique about EMDR?! Here is some information that can help you better understand EMDR therapy.
What is EMDR?
EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. It is a trauma-informed and evidence based therapy that was developed in the 1980’s by Dr. Francine Shapiro. EMDR uses bilateral stimulations (for instance eye movements or tapping) that aid the processing of distressing memories. It’s used to effectively treat symptoms seen in PTSD, anxiety, depression, OCD, and distressing life experiences. For instance, it can be used to process the perinatal mood disorders resulting from challenging perinatal experiences. The ongoing research support positive clinical outcomes and many times can be completed in fewer sessions than other psychotherapies.
What goes on in our brain when we experience traumatic or disturbing memories?
When we experience disturbing or painful events, the memories of it can become “stuck” or “unprocessed” in our brain with images, sounds, smells, emotions, body sensations, and beliefs associated with those memories. This happens because the two areas of our brain related to emotions and memory storage (amygdala and hippocampus) become overstimulated. Do to this, the rational thinking part of our brain (prefrontal cortex) cannot control the emotional part of our brain. When this occurs, the memory will continue to cause overwhelming disturbance because they are stored in raw, unprocessed form. If triggered by present-day experiences with any related element of the painful events, logical thinking becomes difficult and it can feel as if you are reliving it.
Why does the therapy involve eye movements or bilateral stimulations?
Eye movements or other forms of bilateral stimulations (side to side motions) have been found to enhance memory processing. The bilateral movements in EMDR mimic REM (rapid eye movement) sleep which plays an important role in helping the brain consolidate and process information into long-term memory.
What does this look like in therapy sessions?
EMDR therapy begins like any other form of therapy: history taking, treatment planning, establish trust and safety, and assessment.
During assessment, we identify what event to process. Many times, there are cluster of events related to disturbing memories therefore we decide on an “umbrella term” for them.
During the desensitization stage of EMDR, bilateral stimulations are incorporated by following the therapist fingers right to left. Alternative versions include right to left tapping, sounds, or light bar.
For my fellow Grey’s Anatomy fan’s, you might have seen Jo following the light bar with her eyes in her EMDR therapy session. Additionally, Prince Harry also shed light on what virtual EMDR therapy looks like. In his interview with Good Morning America you can see Prince Harry closing his eyes, crossing his arms, and tapping side to side with his hands.
EMDR aids at incorporating positive thoughts and beliefs that can be associated with the memory. It also connects with the body and processes lingering somatic disturbances. Towards the closure of the visits, the therapist assist with a grounding or orienting exercise. At the follow up visits, reevaluation takes place where we check in on how you are feeling about what was processed and decide on how to continue.
How long does it take?
This question is tough to answer. The truth is it is going to be different for everyone, depending on the severity of the disturbing memories, individual history, and individual needs. It can take several sessions to process one traumatic experience. EMDR can often be completed in fewer therapy sessions than other types of psychotherapies.
Is EMDR right for me?
At times, EMDR can be emotionally and physically discomforting as you are working through painful memories. Therefore, it is important to find a therapist you feel safe with and helps connect with your coping skills and internal/external resources. The discomfort should diminish or desensitize as the reprocessing continues. It’s important to consult with an EMDR trained therapist to discuss your specific situation.
I think back to when I first heard of EMDR and acknowledge the impact of that pleasant memory. That curious part of me that was attentively listening lead me to do my own research, complete trainings, and ultimately have the privilege of using this therapy with my clients. To bring it full circle, here I am now writing a blog about EMDR hopefully evoking some curiosity in you! EMDR can help heal psychological wounds with the development of new perspectives and diminishment of activation or like many put it the “rewiring of the brain”.
If you have further questions about EMDR Therapy please consult with an EMDR trained therapist. You can also visit the EMDR International Association (EMDRIA) where there is further information: https://www.emdr.com/frequent-questions/
Shapiro, F. (2001) Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing: Basic Principles, Protocols and Procedures, 2nd Editions. New York: Guilford Press.
Greenwarld, R. (2007). EMDR Within a Phase Model of Trauma- Informed Treatment New York: Haworth.
Pagani M, Amann BL, Landin-Romero R and Carletto S (2017) Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing and Slow Wave Sleep: A Putative Mechanism of Action. Front. Psychol. 8:1935. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2017.01935