EMDR: Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing

What is EMDR?

EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. It is a trauma therapy to help reduce the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. In many circumstances, our view of the events in our lives tend to have a larger impact on our well being than the events themselves. EMDR uses bilateral stimulation to target memories that have created or contributed to irrational beliefs and shift our perception to a healthier one.

What is bilateral stimulation?

Bilateral stimulation is a rhythmic side-to-side pattern that is thought to be a key component in our brain processing events and new information. This can be done through visual, auditory, or tactile external stimuli. While EMDR is initially based on eye movements (visual stimulation) to process memories, it can also be done through listening to tones in alternating ears (auditory stimulation), tapping (tactile stimulation), or a combination of these.

What types of trauma does EMDR help with?

EMDR can help with all types of trauma, from returning from war and abuse to a difficult break up to watching something tragic on the news. It is not about what happened, but the impact of what has occurred. Our negative beliefs have grown from our experiences and our view of the world. Are these beliefs getting in the way of your relationships, giving you depression or anxiety, or impacting your sleep? If so, EMDR may be beneficial to you.

What is the history behind EMDR?

In 1987, Francine Shapiro was walking through the park thinking of some disturbing memories when she noticed her negative emotions associated with the memories disappearing. She was confused as to why this was happening but noted that her eyes had been moving back and forth at the time. As a psychology graduate student, she was intrigued and decided to find out if there was a connection. She began to experiment on herself and continued noticing emotions associated with difficult memories lessening with eye movements. She developed a protocol that we now know as EMDR and began researching it on people who were suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. The research was powerful and more successful than anticipated. For most of the participants, anxiety and symptoms of PTSD significantly decreased in three or four sessions.

How does EMDR work?

While we don’t know the exact mechanism that creates these rapid changes, it is thought to be connected to how we process intense memories and emotions. This involves communication between 3 parts of our brain:

  • Amygdala – the alarm system for stressful and dangerous situations; our fight, flight or freeze response
  • Hippocampus – a major player in learning, including lessons about safety or danger
  • Prefrontal Cortex – the region of our brain that controls emotion and behavior

When we are in a state of distress, the system our brains usually use to successfully process memories can become overloaded, causing the stressful memory to be frozen in an unprocessed raw, emotional form. When this memory is triggered, it in turn brings on intense emotion, heightened physical response, and irrational cognitions.

EMDR helps rapidly access these highly distressing memories in a safe environment to process them emotionally and cognitively to come to a resolution. This processing allows us to develop healthy cognitive insights about the memories, eliminate emotional distress, and create associations between the traumatic memory to our other more adaptive memories.

What is a session like?

The EMDR approach is broken up into 8 phases. These phases can reoccur throughout the process as needed and adapted to each individual client’s needs. The part that makes EMDR very unique is that change can occur without the client having to talk about their trauma in depth and reopen the wounds.

  • Phase 1: Collecting history and treatment planning. This is where we identify the current problem, the neural network associated with this problem, and how to shift the negative belief to a more adaptive belief. This phase can take 1 to 2 sessions to complete.
  • Phase 2: This is where the therapist will explain what to expect during EMDR and teach several coping strategies to ensure the client has skills to utilize for any emotional disturbance that may arise before or after processing difficult memories. This phase can take 1 to 4 sessions to complete.
  • Phases 3 – 7: These phases include assessment, desensitization, installation, body scan, and closure. These parts all make up the processing part of EMDR. Here, the client is identifying the target memory and processing it with bilateral stimulation to shift from the negative belief to an adaptive belief. The time it takes to process a single memory can range from one part of a session to several sessions.
  • Phase 8: At the beginning of each session following a processing session, your therapist will check in with you to see if you noticed any changes throughout the week and reassess where you stand in your perception of the memory. If needed, processing can be continued.

Can you do EMDR with kids?

EMDR can be done with all ages based on ability to converse, typically around age 4 or 5 and up! There are many ways to adapt EMDR to any age to help target and process traumatic memories. EMDR has been shown to help children manage trauma, depression, anxiety, phobias, and more.

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