What is EMDR?
EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) is a revolutionary, research-based therapy that can effectively resolve even very old trauma, and help get at the roots of non-traumatic depression and anxiety. It draws on the discovery that when “bi-lateral stimulation”–the stimulation of the brain’s hemispheres by sequential use of back-and-forth eye movements, or tapping on the knees or hands in sequence—is applied as a distressing memory is recalled, the psyche’s natural processing abilities are re-awoken.
In essence, EMDR is a simple technique in which the therapist guides the patient through a process of healing, leading to a true and lasting experience of resolution.
What issues are addressed by EMDR?
EMDR has been consistently shown by research studies to be a very effective treatment for serious trauma—car accidents, assaults, incidents in war, so-called “single incident trauma.” These are the experiences that, when untreated, can develop into post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
But EMDR has also been shown by the body of clinical experience of EMDR therapists to also deeply address issues such as early childhood deprivation, ongoing anxiety and depression, phobias, panic attacks, and general performance issues (with work, testing, athletics).
How does EMDR work?
How exactly, neurologically, EMDR works no one really knows. However, what is known is that when a person experiences great agitation, the brain does not integrate information the way it does in non-stressful situations. Such experiences get “stuck” in the mind, and continue to feel like the original event itself, encapsulating the event’s sensations, sounds, feelings and images.
Unless addressed, this can lead to the building up of beliefs and behaviors that muffles a person’s creativity and ability to freely relate to others. Lives can become organized around the trauma, rather than around authentic desire and drives.
With EMDR, the natural process of assimilating experience seems to be “jump started,” and what did not happen can now be relatively quickly re-processed. The memories, with their images, emotions, and sensations, can continue through the natural arc of integration, leading to a profound relief in which the actual event will be remembered, but without the painful quality of it happening again and again.
What is a session like?
A session begins with the therapist helping the patient identify a specific target to focus on, whether in the near-present or the far past. Internal strengths and resources are identified, which can be called on as needed during the process to prevent one from becoming overwhelmed. Then the target memory is recalled as vividly as possible, and the bi-lateral stimulation is begun to start the re-processing.
The patient’s role is to allow the memory to unfold without, as best they can, censoring or blocking the flow. The therapist is there to gently keep the process unfolding, and when it might get stuck or head off into tangential realms, they help the client return to the target, so that the session does not get too diffuse. By keeping the focus, the therapist helps keep the process on track, leading to a genuine resolution.
What are the effects?
Each patient will experience the EMDR process differently, according to their beliefs, past experiences, and basic neurology. But the commonality that most patients express is that, in following a memory back to its root, the distress arising from that stuck memory truly abates. It’s not that the memory is somehow there but muted; rather, the hermetically sealed experience is allowed to integrate with the rest of the psyche, just like a wound in healing leads to the restored integrity of the tissue.
People often experience this by saying that, when trying to remember the distress, it feels finally in the past, something that did happen, but which does not have the same relevance or import to current life. This is something we actually feel; as one researcher describes it, “Trauma is resolved when the body realizes it’s actually over.”
Often, startling clarity of insight can arise. Self-blame around a past trauma can, without forcing, turn into, “I did all I could in the situation. I’m not to blame. I’m O.K. as I am.” This is not a Pollyanna thought, but a realization of what is, and always has been, actually true.
The relief coming from these resolutions is profound and lasting.