A Brief Overview of EMDR

Having the courage to venture into the world of therapy can be accompanied by many overwhelming feelings such as fear, anxiety, skepticism, and shame.  Just finding the right therapist, in itself, can be a hurdle.  Ideally, this is a person you will be able to connect with and can trust to share some of your most vulnerable thoughts and feelings.

Adding to the complexity are considerations such as choosing the particular type of therapy that might be the best approach for your situation.

If you’re new to therapy at this point you might be thinking something along the lines of “Wait…you mean there are different types of therapy?  And do you mean I won’t just be staring at a ceiling, lying on a couch, and talking about my mother?”

Yes, there are and no you won’t, but have no fear because today you’ll get a quick peek at one of my personal favorite therapies and if you continue to follow this blog it will be updated with all kinds of information regarding types of therapy, current events in mental health, insights to the process of the mental health profession, and a range of perspectives by various experts.

So, to get back on topic…

Today we will briefly discuss, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing also referred to as EMDR.  EMDR is an evidenced-based psychotherapy treatment used to help individuals who struggle with symptoms related to experiencing traumatic or distressing life experiences.

When we have experiences, they are accompanied with feelings, thoughts, and body sensations tied to the event.  Normally, an experience is processed by our brains, sorted and stored, in a manner that we can recall the experience and learn for it.  However, when an event is traumatic or occurs repeatedly our brains struggle to sort and store the information appropriately because it is overloaded.  We are left with feelings, thoughts, and body sensations connected to the event and all the details of the event.

For example, if I experience a car accident on hot rainy night, those feelings, thoughts, and body sensations connected to the event could be triggered at a later time by experiencing similar elements of the event such as seeing rain on a window, the smell of rain, or the heat of a summer night.  A person could be sitting in a park safely with friends, but feel the same fear they felt the night of the car wreck simply by noticing one of the triggers connected to the event.  Often times, these re-experiences interfere with our ability to be present with the moment we are actually in. 

EMDR was created by Dr. Francine Shapiro, who noticed that while walking in a park she could alleviate symptoms of stress by activating each side of her brain via back and forth eye movements.  Dr. Shapiro believed that many of the disorders and emotional issues people struggle with are manifestations of unprocessed traumatic memories.  Based on the adaptive information processing model (AIP), which hypothesizes that traumatic and adverse events block the information processing, causing events to get locked in the brain with all the various stimuli connected to the event.

Okay… so what does a EMDR session look like?  Great question!

Unlike typical talk therapy which requires a deep dive into belief systems and past events, EMDR is structured a bit differently.  Similar to other therapy approaches, the therapist and client will spend time getting to know one another, building rapport and trust, and identifying the target memory.  Once the client is comfortable and the memory is identified, the therapist will lead the client in exercises which can occur in multiple ways depending on the client’s age and physical needs.  These different methods may include holding “tappers” in each hand that pulse back and forth; eye movements in which the client follows a light or the therapist’s finger with their eyes; gentle taps on the client’s legs performed by a parent, the client, or the therapist; and taps on the shoulder performed by the client.  Each of these exercises requires stimulation on both sides of the body, activating both sides of the brain.

As the exercises occur, the client is asked to think of the target memory and allow their brain to wander wherever it may go.  The therapist will ask, “what was the last thing you noticed?”  The client will simply give a brief description and follow the therapist next set of instructions which might be to continue tapping or following their finger with their eyes.  If at any point the client begins to feel too overwhelmed or needs a break the session can be stopped.  EMDR requires a licensed professional to guide and administer, however this hopefully gives you a brief glimpse into what a session may look like.

As I stated earlier, EMDR is an evidence based practice meaning it has been validated and tested in clinical trials and shown to provide benefits and improvement for certain mental health conditions.  EMDR is often used by the Veterans Affairs for those who struggle with Post Traumatic Stress Disorders, however, trauma appears in many different ways and EMDR can be helpful to traumas both big and small.  If you, like many others, have experienced abrupt and difficult events, please consider contacting a licensed professional today and discussing if EMDR might be an effective treatment for yourself.

References: Shapiro, F. (n.d.). What is EMDR? www.Emdr.Com. Retrieved July 30, 2020, from https://www.emdr.com/what-is-emdr/

Article written by Joe Yoder, LMSW

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