EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. It is a type of psychotherapy that was originally developed to help relieve the distress and anxiety associated with traumatic memories. It is often used to treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and help individuals reprocess traumatic memories in a way that is beneficial to them.
The unique component of EMDR therapy is the use of an external stimulus to help create eye movements that are similar to those that occur during REM sleep. These movements are recreated by watching the therapist’s finger move back and forth across your visual field. Sometimes therapists may use a bar of moving lights or the sound of tapping alternating from left to right via headphone. Other methods might include alternating physical touches, taps or vibrations from hand-held tools.
Why Are Stimuli Used?
The stimulus is meant to occupy the client externally, while the therapist simultaneously directs the client to focus internally. With repeated sets of eye movement back forth, the traumatic memory tends to change in terms of intensity and distress and simply becomes a more neutral memory of the event.
“It is based on the idea that symptoms occur when trauma and other negative or challenging experiences overwhelm the brain’s natural ability to heal, and that the healing process can be facilitated and completed through bilateral stimulation while the client is re-experiencing the trauma in the context of the safe environment of the therapist’s office…” writes John Riddle for Psycom.
Some clients might find this type of therapy less intimidating, since they have to hold the memory in mind, but aren’t expected to discuss the full details out loud with the therapist.
What Happens During an EMDR Session?
The therapist begins by asking their client first to identify their most traumatic memory, and second, to identify the negative belief that this trauma imposed on the client. For instance, individuals who experience adverse events as children might develop the belief that they were at fault. Some victims of assault or abuse might feel as if they are worthless or of little value. Rationally, an individual might recognize that these thoughts are illogical or untrue, but once entrenched, the belief still disrupts their lives in the form of flashbacks, panic attacks, anxiety and PTSD.
Next, the client goes through the memory while engaged by the external stimulus. The therapist guides the transition of turning the negative belief into a positive one.
“In the beginning of treatment, we’ll start with the image that best captures your trauma and the negative belief you have about yourself that came out of that trauma. As things start to shift and move, we’re going to bring in the belief that you want to carry about the trauma,” explains Dr. Melissa Beason-Smith in a video on the U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs site.
Together, the therapist and client will identify a new, positive belief to replace the one associated with the trauma. It might be something like, “it wasn’t my fault,” “I am not worthless,” or “this trauma will not define me.”
EMDR sessions can range from 60 – 90 minutes and are meant to go on until the client reports that the traumatic memory has become less disturbing.
How Does it Work?
Psychologists have theories on what is happening inside the brain during EMDR, and it has been widely researched since its development by psychotherapist Francine Shapiro in 1989; however, as of today, there is no agreed upon explanation as to exactly how it works.
“Which makes it really hard to sell people on it,” says Beason-Smith. “But the reality is that over and over and over in my office, I see it work, and I see people change… and I know they’re getting better with it.”
Should You Try EMDR Therapy?
EMDR has grown in popularity drastically since its first use in 1989. Though there is some controversy about the effectiveness of this treatment.
“EMDR is a controversial intervention, because it is unclear exactly how it works, with some psychologists claiming it does not work. Some studies have shown, however, that EMDR is effective for treating certain mental-health conditions,” states an article in Psychology Today.
Currently, this controversy is considered minimal or outdated by the many high-profile psychologists, therapists and organizations which support its use. According to Psychology Today, EMDR is supported by:
- The American Psychiatric Association (APA)
- The International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies (ISTSS)
- The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs
“…My experience receiving EMDR completely changed my life. Those past experiences don’t bother me at all anymore (I guess this is why I can write about them publicly). In fact, I know how much wiser and stronger I’ve grown from these past struggles. It was intensely cathartic, emotionally draining, challenging, yet relieving and empowering. After therapy, I knew I had to learn EMDR myself so I could help others effectively and efficiently,” writes Jason N. Linder, PsyD, for Psychology Today.
If you are curious and want to learn more about EMDR, check out some of these articles:
If you would like to talk with one of our therapists about the use of EMDR and whether it might be a beneficial treatment for you, please contact us at Family & Child Development.