What is EMDR?
EMDR Therapy is a progressive psychotherapy tool used to enable people to heal from the symptoms caused by the distress they experience after witnessing a disturbing life event. Disturbing life events can range from bullying or humiliation, neglect, sexual abuse, or even watching someone get hurt. It is a commonly misunderstood myth that “trauma” has to mean a life shattering experience, such as rape or war, when in fact the more subtle forms of aversive experiences can have equally or more negative and insidious effects than what are sometimes called Big ‘T’ Traumas. These Small ‘t’ traumas are often associated with long-term negative health, wellness, and economic concerns (for more information see the ACES Study). Another myth that is widely held is that significant emotional pain requires a long time or even years to overcome. EMDR therapy shows that the mind can in fact heal from psychological trauma, similar to how to the body heals from an injury. EMDR Therapy is also showing that rapid recovery is possible! Some studies have shown EMDR Therapy to provide results in as quick as three to six sessions.
A metaphor provided by the EMDR Institute on how EMDR therapy works, “When you cut your hand, your body works to close the wound. If a foreign object or repeated injury irritates the wound, it festers and causes pain. Once the block is removed, healing resumes. EMDR therapy shows a similar sequence of events occurs in the mind. The brain’s information processing system naturally moves toward mental health and wellness. If the system is blocked or imbalanced by the impact of a disturbing event, the emotional wound festers and can cause intense suffering. Once the block is removed, healing resumes. Using the detailed protocols and procedures learned in EMDR therapy training sessions, clinicians help clients activate their natural healing processes.”
Does it work?
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.
What will happen in EMDR?
EMDR therapy is a model that moves through several phases. All people who participate in EMDR therapy will be asked to complete a few positive resourcing, such as identifying a relaxed state or a place or experience that feels calm and soothing. This is in preparation to be able to address more bothersome memories. We like to know each person has a toolbox of resources to manage any distress that may arise during the process. A common example of the type of distress I am referring to may be thinking about a memory you had not thought about in a long time. Sometimes those memories can bring up feelings of sadness or heartache.
As for a closure look into the full experience of EMDR “reprocessing”:
In the beginning the counselor will take a history of all of the relevant experiences that are related to your current distress. Then with your assistance, the counselor will prioritize them into what is most relevant to your current distress (hottest memories to least bothersome). Next the counselor will help you identify the negative thoughts you have about yourself in response to the event (ie: I’m a bad person, I am not good enough, It was all my fault), and also how you would like to believe about yourself instead (ie: I am fine the way I am, I am a good person), and how true that positive belief feels right now. It’s okay if the positive doesn’t feel true at all! The goal is that it will by the end of the process!. The counselor will ask if there is an image associated with the memory, how bothersome the memory is on a scale of 0-10, and where you hold the distress in your body (ie: I feel it in my chest). Once all that information is collected, and the client feels ready to do reprocessing the counselor will ask you to hold that information in your mind for a moment, and then begin to add in a form of “Bilateral stimulation” which is a fancy term for saying movements from left to right that cross the midline of the body. The most common type of bilateral movements are eye movements (hence where the treatment got its name!) These Bilateral movements are believed to replicate REM sleep, or the deep stage of sleep in which our bodies do most of its healing and repairing. Your mind will then begin sorting through the relevant information. The process is similar to sifting memories through a strainer, where the traumatic memories are like big rocks that get stuck. Well when we add in all of these components to the process it begins to break them down into smaller pieces that eventually pass through the strainer. The goal is to allow the
brain to move through all the stuck areas and into more adaptive or positive associations. In a “completed” session the negative belief is no longer there, the positive belief feels 100% true, there is no distress left, and there are no unusual sensations felt in the body (tightness or tension)! Sometimes there isn’t enough time in the session to get through all the material, so the therapist will move you through an exercise to contain any distress and put the information away until it can be completed at the next session. For most clients they can move through to completion in a 50-90 minute session. Some individuals will need more work up front to prepare for addressing their difficult memories, and that is totally okay! The cool thing is that there are no “supposed to’s” in this process, and there is no way for you to do it wrong! Your mind will know exactly what to do! I am just there to provide support and structure! And on a side note: for some people their target memory is too difficult to share out loud. As you can see from this process it is possible to process through a memory without having to ever go into all the yucky details again!