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What is EMDR Therapy? (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing)

If you’ve tried to get past a traumatic event but still find yourself feeling stuck mentally or physically, you could be experiencing real symptoms of trauma, and EMDR may be right for you. Trauma can affect us in a myriad of ways and can affect our ability to move forward with our life. Some examples of when trauma can get in the way of our life are below:
  • Disturbing images or memories
  • Avoiding thoughts, feelings, places, people, or activities that remind you of the event
  • Trouble remembering the event or certain parts of it
  • Feeling like time is missing
  • Decreased interest in things you used to enjoy and otherwise feeling numb
  • Difficulty with sleep
  • Feeling disconnected from yourself and others
  • Negative view of self
  • Panic attacks and anxiety

When you undergo a traumatic experience, your brain’s capacity to process memory from the event is compromised.

What is EMDR?

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a type of therapy used to treat trauma, PTSD, panic disorder, and other mental health disorders. It is a helpful form of therapy for people who have suffered emotional stress in their lives and is one of the most researched treatment modalities for treating trauma. EMDR is evidence-based and has been used in over 30 clinical studies and hundreds of case studies. It is recognized by the World Health Organization (WHO) as a preferred treatment option for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

The most notable feature of EMDR is bilateral stimulation. This term describes the process of using tapping, audible tones, or patterned eye movements to stimulate both sides of the brain in tandem, allowing the subject to enter into a state where memories are more viscerally accessed and can be reprocessed.

Through bilateral stimulation, EMDR helps reprocess disturbing images, sensations, emotions, thoughts, and beliefs that follow a traumatic event. It is an eight-phase protocol that targets a traumatic memory as well as associations tied to that memory. Once clients are done with their EMDR protocol, they often report that their symptoms have alleviated and the memory itself is less distressing.
a woman walking in the park to illustrate how EMDR was developed

How Was EMDR Developed?

EMDR was developed in the 1980s by Francine Shapiro—a psychotherapist—when she was walking through a park and realized that the distressing thoughts she had been having began to subside after she looked from one side of the park to the other. She wondered whether eye movements, from left to right, helped re-process the distressing thoughts, emotions, and memories that come from stress. This activity is thought to be similar to what happens to the brain during REM sleep cycles when the brain integrates helpful information and eliminates unhelpful information.

How Does It Work?

Memories are stored in neural networks that connect to a web of related information, such as memories, thoughts, emotions, beliefs, and sensations. Learning takes place when new associations modify or add to the information that the brain already knows.

However, when you undergo a traumatic experience, your brain’s capacity to process memory from the event is compromised. This is primarily because our body sends a message to our brain telling us that our current experience is dangerous, threatening, and does not make sense. It is as if the trauma makes our brain’s ability to problem solve very weak, similar to scratches on a vinyl record when a song plays that skips or repeats certain parts. This incompleteness in our information processing will typically manifest in unhelpful coping patterns and negative beliefs about ourselves or the world around us.

The brain is not able to process and record traumatic information, but bits and pieces from the event still might be remembered and come up from time to time, often called “flashbacks.” In these instances, the nervous system responds to cues of the past trauma as if the event is happening all over again in present time. Rather than asking you to remember and discuss those situations at length, EMDR allows a person to experience and reprocess the traumatic content in a safe and therapeutic space while using positive resources to learn new and healthy coping skills.

What Happens in an EMDR session?

Unlike traditional talk therapy, you do not need to talk about your trauma in an EMDR session. An EMDR therapist will help you prepare for trauma processing by teaching you coping skills, called “resourcing.” Resourcing can be thought of as a kind of toolkit, which you can use to handle stress. You’ll then be prompted to choose an image, along with related sensations, emotions, and thoughts that are tied to a memory you have from a traumatic event. The EMDR therapist will guide you through sequences to process this combined information while your brain goes through bilateral stimulation.
Bilateral stimulation can happen in several ways: through eye movements from left to right using a lightbar or the therapist’s hand; through physical tapping between the left and right sides of your body; or through using wands that send small vibrations between your left and right hands.
  • History collection
  • Preparation – to help you know what to expect
  • Assessment – to find unhelpful thoughts and feelings associated with the event as well as identify more positive beliefs
  • Desensitization – processing these associations and sensations through bilateral stimulation
  • Installation – integrating and strengthening more positive beliefs
  • Body scan
  • Closure
  • Re-evaluation – to review your treatment plan goals
EMDR session with patient and therapist

If you feel EMDR could be right for you or want to learn more, please reach out to our team to schedule an appointment. Healing from trauma through EMDR is possible!