Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)
WHAT IS emdr, and COULD IT HELP ME?
EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), is an effective and evidence-based therapy used to treat the psychological effects of stress and trauma. Repeated studies show that EMDR rapidly processes and releases traumatic stress trapped in the mind and body as disturbing memories, flashbacks, phobias, tension, anxiety, depression, and self-limiting beliefs. It has also been shown to be effective in treating the symptoms of low self-esteem, negative self-talk, and relationship difficulties, and to unlock creative blocks and enhance work and athletic performance. What once took many years to resolve in traditional talk therapy can now be achieved in a relatively short period of time with this gentle yet powerful tool. Additionally, many people find they experience a new sense of joy, openness, and connectedness with others after treatment with EMDR. According to Dr. Laurel Parnell, a leader in attachment-based EMDR treatment, it is “a quantum leap in the human ability to heal trauma and maladaptive beliefs.”
How does emdr work?
EMDR uses bilateral stimulation (eye movements, touch/tapping, or sound that alternates between both the left and right sides of the body) to access, process, and contextualize emotionally-charged memories and images that were previously causing distress by “free-floating” in the brain and body.
EMDR is understood to work similarly to REM sleep (Rapid Eye Movement), in which the brain processes and stores the emotional events of the day. It is believed that EMDR functions as a kind of processing and storing system accelerator, providing emotional distance, context, and clarity to previously overwhelming traumatic memories.
Imagine your brain as a filing cabinet where your memory files are stored. Trauma memories never get filed, so they float around in the present and interfere with daily life in the form of nightmares, flashbacks, anxiety, depression, and other distressing symptoms. EMDR provides a way of securely filing the memories away so that they stop popping up unexpectedly. You have access to them if you want it, but they otherwise remain inactive until which time you choose to retrieve them.
WHAT IS AN EMDR SESSION LIKE?
This is a lengthy description that may, at first, seem complicated. However, EMDR is actually a simple, gentle, and effective way to address debilitating symptoms.
Imagine a client named Alison comes in because she wants to work on reducing her social anxiety. Whenever Alison attends work-related social gatherings, she becomes short of breath, begins sweating, and feels like she's going to pass out. She imagines that others are judging her, and loses confidence in her ability to socialize effectively. Her goal is to reduce her anxiety and to increase her self confidence.
After the therapist completes a history and develops a treatment plan with Alison, she teaches her relaxation and emotional regulation skills she can call upon during processing and between sessions if she needs extra support. Once Alison feels calm and prepared, she and her therapist identify and desensitize all past experiences that emerge and feel relevant to the current target symptom (in this case, Alison's social anxiety). They achieve desensitization by using alternating visual, auditory, or tactile bilateral stimulation in a rhythmic pattern (many therapists use a small tapping device with gentle hand-held pulsers. Speed and intensity are set to a comfortable pace and controlled by the client).
Once Alison feels a release related to the troubling past experiences, she and her therapist address the current situations that are triggering her anxiety. Specifically, they target Alison's upsetting image of the work party, her limiting belief, "I don't belong," feelings of shame and fear, and any body sensations associated with the image. They use bilateral stimulation (pulsers) to work through the feelings until little to no disturbance remains and she is able to believe the thought, "I belong, and I am safe," and she no longer has any negative body sensations associated with the target.
Alison and her therapist then move on to future situations. During this phase, Alison imagines herself getting ready for a networking party, getting into her car and driving to the venue, walking into the party, enjoying herself and speaking calmly and confidently with her coworkers and supervisors, then leaving and returning home with a sense of peace and calm. Alison may find that all upsetting symptoms are now resolved, and that this phase is complete. Or, she may still perceive moderate anxiety and perhaps other negative beliefs. If this is the case, the therapist and Alison continue processing until her anxiety is reduced and she is able to hold a positive belief about herself related to the imagined future event.
The next time Alison is faced with a social work gathering, she has more confidence and far less anxiety, and is able to enjoy herself with her colleagues. She leaves the party feeling calm, happy, and satisfied with her experience.
Does emdr really work?
Controlled studies (20+) have found that EMDR effectively and efficiently decreases or eliminates the symptoms of PTSD for the majority of clients. People often report improvement in other associated symptoms, such as anxiety, as well. The American Psychiatric Association and the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies endorse EMDR as an effective treatment for post-traumatic stress, and EMDR was found to be an effective treatment by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and Department of Defense, the United Kingdom Department of Health, the Israeli National Council for Mental Health, and many other international health and governmental agencies.
HOW MANY SESSIONS WILL IT TAKE?
The number of sessions varies from person to person and the issue(s) being addressed. Because EMDR is one of the best ways to efficiently and effectively deal with anxiety, trauma, and other common reasons people seek therapy, most clients feel significant relief after their first encounter with EMDR.
WHAT EMDR DOESN'T DO
Some people fear that EMDR will erase memories, put them into a hypnotic state, or change their feelings and accurate perceptions about people and reality. Rest assured, it does none of those things. In fact, you will be fully aware, present, and in charge of yourself, your thoughts, your behaviors, and even the pace of the session throughout the EMDR process.