“What” is EMDR?
EMDR is a therapy designed to promote insight and reduce the intensity of traumatic, disturbing or difficult feelings, thoughts and memories. For instance, it is possible that a frightening childhood encounter with a dog still carries the immediacy of the event even into adulthood leading to a habit of anxiety about and avoidance of dogs. With EMDR it is possible to reduce the urgency and fear that is part of that memory and, therefore, change one’s anxiety about dogs.
EMDR can be effective in addressing a wide variety of issues including trauma, grief, disturbing memories, stress and the dysfunctional patterns we all have in life. It uses imagination and the sensory stimulation of tapping, vibration or sound to help process disturbing feelings, memories or thoughts. EMDR can be thought of as a healing inner journey that "reprocesses" stuck emotional reactions to past experiences. It engages the mind and the body to shift one's experience of life difficulties.
What is “EMDR?”
EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. Early in its development, EMDR involved rapidly shifting one’s gaze back and forth with the idea of stimulating the different hemispheres of the brain. Now this dual-attention stimulation is often achieved through means other than eye movement including sounds or handheld vibrators, called “tappers,” that alternate between right and left. Desensitization refers to reducing the intensity of the feeling, thought or memory. Reprocessing indicates that the feeling, thought or memory wasn’t completely processed at the time of the event and describes placing it in long-term storage rather than keeping it at hand as though the event were still imminent.
What about processing events and memories?
When things happen, memories are formed and those memories are connected to feelings and thoughts. What usually happens to memories is that they are processed by the mind and the brain and are placed into long-term memory where they are more or less ready for recall. For the most part they have little if any particular emotional charge. Most of the time trauma is processed in a similar way and any severe reactions are short lived.
Sometimes, though, traumatic events can get “stuck” in the processing, often because the initial event is so overwhelming to the senses. When this happens the memories, feelings and thoughts may be easily reactivated by events that are in some way similar to the trauma. This can even happen subconsciously, without remembering the initial event or realizing why you’re feeling or behaving this way. The memories, feelings and thoughts may be experienced as if they are happening in present time. This may lead one to repeat dysfunctional patterns of behavior, sometimes without knowing why. This “stuckness” can result in PTSD. PTSD is a collection of symptoms including re-experiencing the traumatic event, avoidance or numbing, increased anxiety and emotional sensitivity.
How is EMDR different from regular talk therapy?
EMDR does not depend on understanding one’s experience by talking about it. Instead, relief and insight comes as the difficult memories, thoughts and feelings are reprocessed in a way that compliments the brain’s natural memory processing.
EMDR also does not require multiple repetitions of one’s trauma story in order to dull the experience of the difficult memory, thought or feeling. EMDR works instead to integrate the memory fragments, processing them and storing them in long-term memory.
What is an EMDR session like?
Before starting EMDR you and your therapist will talk in order to gauge whether EMDR is suitable for your concerns and a good fit for you. It is possible that, before beginning EMDR, you will need to do some preliminary work such as learning to tolerate difficult and/or intense emotions and developing the ability to accept paradox.
At the beginning of EMDR you will be encouraged to create some inner resources such as an inner peaceful and calm place and a protector figure. Then, after calling up a picture, emotions and body sensations linked to the disturbing feeling, thought or memory you want to work on, your therapist will begin the dual attention stimulation. During the dual attention stimulation you may be silent or you may describe what is happening for you; in any case, your job is simply to notice what comes up. You do not have to try to remember or figure anything out, just let what comes up, come up. Your therapist will check in periodically and may re-focus your efforts depending on your progress. Progress is measured on a 0 to 10 scale that describes your level of distress. Typically there is a marked decrease in distress over the course of a session. If the trauma is more complex it may take multiple sessions to clear an experience.
How does EMDR work?
Researchers are not sure how EMDR works. There are many theories including:
- The eye movements replicate REM sleep, a stage of sleep associated with processing memories.
- The rhythm of the dual attention stimulation promotes a feeling of calm that helps the mind to process traumatic events.
- The dual attention stimulation simply distracts the mind from reacting defensively during the desensitization process.
- Stimulation of both hemispheres of the brain help to process distressing memories.
How effective is EMDR?
The effectiveness of EMDR depends, as with any therapy, on a number of factors. The relationship between the counselor and the client, the fit between the client and the kind of therapy, and the willingness of the client to participate, are all important to the success of therapy. Your issue may be cleared in one session or it many take many sessions depending on the complexity, intensity, and your own processing style. Research on EMDR has demonstrated its effectiveness in study situations. You can explore this yourself at the EMDRIA.org website, go to the “Resources” tab and click on “EMDR Related Research.”
How do I know if EMDR is for me?
As with any therapy the fit between the client, the therapist and the type of therapy is important. You should get a good idea of these during the first few sessions. If you feel comfortable with your therapist and with the idea of EMDR then what is needed to do well is to have the desire to get better and to be consistent in attending your appointments.