Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a method of treatment for people who suffer from disturbing thoughts, memories or beliefs. EMDR involves remembering the disturbing event or thought in detail, and working it through to a resolution with the help of your therapist. Sessions are usually 50-60 minutes long, and may feel intensely emotional. EMDR can help people get over their emotional pain faster than talk therapy alone.
How does it work?
The human body is designed to heal itself. For instance, when we get a cut, the body processes work to repair the physical damage, and the wound heals. Through years of research, we now know that our mental processes work in a similar way. When we encounter an upsetting experience, our brain normally processes that negative information into a state of mental health. We integrate the data into how we normally view the world, our brain stores it away in the proper cells, and the incident makes sense to us. We adapt and move on.
Unfortunately, in some cases, an experience can be so out of the ordinary for us that it feels “traumatic.” Such an experience disrupts our sense of control and results in an overwhelming sense of vulnerability. Examples of these experiences include: childhood abuse, divorce, auto accidents, sexual assault, death or serious injury of someone close, mass disasters, suicide or homicide of someone close, going through a life-threatening event yourself.
These events break through a basic assumption we had about life. The three most common basic assumptions people have about the world are:
• Bad things won’t happen to me
• The world is predictable, fair, and controllable
• Bad things don’t happen to good people
When one (or all) of these beliefs are violated, the incoming information, because the person’s nervous system has been overwhelmed by the profound emotional pain of the experience, gets frozen or stored in a dysfunctional way in the brain. The memory paths become blocked and self-healing cannot take place.
What happens in a session?
The client is asked to bring up the disturbing memory in his/her mind, and at the same time allow the therapist to stimulate both sides of the brain, alternately. This can be done in several ways:
1) By causing the client’s eyes to move from left to right, and right to left, over and over again. (To help you, the therapist may have you follow his/her finger, or watch a light that moves back and forth.)
2) By providing you with touch, first on one side of the body, then on the other, back and forth; (the therapist can tap you on the back of your hand or your knees, alternating left and right, or use a battery-operated stimulus to hold in your hands.)
3) By stimulating your hearing, first one ear and then the other, with a battery-operated device.
As this left-right stimulation occurs, the brain shifts the traumatic details of the memory into different cells. As it does, the client will usually experience new or different thoughts, emotions, or body sensations.
As the session goes on, the brain moves the traumatic information to a different place, and the disturbing memory will change. Gradually, the client will notice that when he/she thinks of the memory, the negative emotion previously felt will be reduced or gone. In addition, the memory itself may look blurry or fuzzy, or may look like it is under water. EMDR will not remove positive memories because they are already stored in the right place. It will however, move and resolve the negative memories so that they no longer block the good memories from coming into consciousness.
Is the treatment safe?
Yes. In EMDR therapy, the therapist sticks to a structured format, and is guiding every phase of the session; however, the client is in control of the results and can stop the session at any time. Similar to talk therapy, in order for EMDR to be effective, the client must be willing to feel the painful emotions once again and be willing to display emotion in front of the therapist.
EMDR: The Breakthrough “Eye Movement” Therapy for Overcoming Anxiety, Stress, and Trauma, by Francine Shapiro, PhD, and Margo Silk Forrest