What is EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) Therapy?
EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) is a form of therapy that is evidence-based for treatment of PTSD and trauma. Trauma can be defined as big "T" traumas (abuse, assault, car accidents, combat, etc) or little "t" traumas (conflicts, confrontations, teasing, etc). EMDR is also very effective with phobias and anxiety.
EMDR involves a process called bilateral stimulation. Bilateral stimulation is a process of alternately engaging both sides of your brain through series of visual or tactile movements. I offer three modalities of bilateral stimulation:
Eye Movements: this is a process where you follow my fingers as I move them back and forth in front of your eyes.
Tactile (pulsars): you will hold small disks that pulse back and forth in your hands.
Tapping: I alternately tap your knees or hands
There is a specific process used during EMDR therapy which involves bringing up the worst picture or image of the traumatic incident along with a negative thought the picture represents to you. For example, if we are working on a traumatic memory of a car accident, I will ask you to remember the worst image that represents this memory to you. You may say "I see glass shattering from the windshield all around me." I will then ask what negative thought this picture brings up about you and you might say "I am trapped" or "I am helpless"
We will then determine what you would rather think (a positive thought) when you remember this image of the windshield shattering. You might say "I got through it" or "I will survive this"
I will then ask you to bring the image up along with the negative thought again and tell me how disturbing this incident is on a scale of 0 to 10, where 0 is neutral/not disturbing and 10 is horribly disturbing. I will then ask you what you feel and where you feel it in your body. You might say "I feel scared" and "I feel knots in my stomach."
We will then begin the bilateral stimulation, either through eye movements, tapping, or tactile pulsars.
What if I’ve never experienced trauma?Anything that has happened to you that has not been fully "digested" is held in the body as trauma. EMDR works on many emotionally disturbing events to reduce the emotional charge of the event. You won’t forget it happened, but it will feel less disturbing and overwhelming to you.
This is true of major traumatic events such as abuse, rape, car accidents, combat, etc, and also true of minor traumatic events such as your mother yelling at you or a difficult interaction with a boss/co-worker. EMDR also works well with phobias, anxiety disorders, complicated grief, and many other issues.
More than 30 positive controlled outcome studies have been done on EMDR therapy. Some of the studies show that 84%-90% of single-trauma victims no longer have post-traumatic stress disorder after only three 90-minute sessions. Another study, funded by the HMO Kaiser Permanente, found that 100% of the single-trauma victims and 77% of multiple trauma victims no longer were diagnosed with PTSD after only six 50-minute sessions. In another study, 77% of combat veterans were free of PTSD in 12 sessions. There has been so much research on EMDR therapy that it is now recognized as an effective form of treatment for trauma and other disturbing experiences by organizations such as the American Psychiatric Association, the World Health Organization and the Department of Defense. Given the worldwide recognition as an effective treatment of trauma, you can easily see how EMDR therapy would be effective in treating the “everyday” memories that are the reason people have low self-esteem, feelings of powerlessness, and all the myriad problems that bring them in for therapy. Over 100,000 clinicians throughout the world use the therapy. Millions of people have been treated successfully over the past 25 years.
No one knows how any form of psychotherapy works. However, we do know that when a person is very upset, their brain cannot process information as it does ordinarily. One moment becomes "frozen in time," and remembering a trauma may feel as bad as going through it the first time because the images, sounds, smells, and feelings haven’t changed. Such memories have a lasting negative effect that interferes with the way a person sees the world and the way they relate to other people.
EMDR seems to have a direct effect on the way that the brain processes information. Normal information processing is resumed, so following a successful EMDR session, a person no longer relives the images, sounds, and feelings when the event is brought to mind. You still remember what happened, but it is less upsetting. Many types of therapy have similar goals. However, EMDR appears to be similar to what occurs naturally during dreaming or REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. Therefore, EMDR can be thought of as a physiologically-based therapy that helps a person see disturbing material in a new and less distressing way.
How can we begin using EMDR?Before we begin with EMDR, I will need to teach you two skills to manage emotions that may come up during this powerful treatment.
The first skill is called Containment
Containment is a skill we all need! Containment involves being able to "put away" emotions that we can’t give our full attention to at the time. If you’ve ever felt "flooded" by emotions at inappropriate times, you know why containment is important. You can use your imaginations to create a "container" that will hold emotions that want to spill over and decrease your functioning.
Try containment right now:Think of a slightly distressing event (we’re not talking about major trauma here, just something that is slightly upsetting to you). Feel the emotion that this brings up. Now, imagine what kind of container you would need to put those emotions into so that you don’t have to feel them when you go into the rest of your day. You really have to use your imagination here, but some examples from clients are:
tupperware, steel box, cement hole, digging a hole in the woods and covering it up, glass jar with a tight lid. Now, imagine putting the emotions surrounding this distressing event into that container you’ve imagined and sealing it up.
Notice if it feels strong enough to hold those emotions. If not, keep imagining what it might take to keep those emotions in there until it is time to give them your full attention. Perhaps it needs a tighter seal or the container needs to be "buried" deeper in the woods. We are then able to "open" that container in our next therapy session to work through these emotions.
The second skill is called "Calm or Peaceful Place"
Try this visualization right now: Calm Place
Think of a place in your adult life where you have felt the most safe or peaceful. It could be a place in nature, in your home or even in your imagination. It could be with someone or alone. As you think of that place, what do you see, hear, smell and feel? What do you sense in your body? Concentrate on where you feel the pleasant sensations in your body and allow yourself to enjoy them. What word, phrase or symbol could represent your place? Some suggestions for words:
calm, peace, love, warm, relax.
Repeat that word in your mind. Now, think of a mildly distressing recent event or memory and then bring up the image or word that represents your safe place. Notice how it feels to go back to your safe place.
After you have practiced these skills, we will work together to determine if EMDR is right for you.
Discover helpful and healthy resources associated with EMDR Therapy.