EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. Created by Francine Shapiro in the late 1980s, it is an evidence-based therapy that excels in healing trauma. But it can be used for much more including depression, anxiety, changing limiting beliefs, treating phobias, clearing obsessive thoughts, panic attacks, and even enhancing athletic performance.
So how does it work? Our brain has many parts to it, many people are familiar with the left and right brain parts. The left governs things such as logic, problem solving, math, and organizing thoughts. The right side works more with emotions, symbolism, art, and creativity. When we encounter a difficult life event or trauma, one of these sides dominates the other. A person may become either overly cold and logical, indicating the left side is in overdrive, or the person may feel consumed by their emotions and be unable to think very rationally about the event, indicating that the right side is in overdrive. Neither of those two options is healthy.
EMDR stimulates each side of the brain back and forth to keep one of those sides online as the event is processed. This allows for enormous mental flexibility that allows a person to renegotiate the past event and finally get the healing that’s been inhibited. EMDR was originally founded using eye movements, but it can also be used with sound or touch. Some people tend to get better results when working with one sense over the others. I use a machine that helps me do the back and forth stimulation while I focus on you as we talk. This allows me to stay connected with you and use additional therapy styles the compliment the EMDR process.
The remaining connected part and present with you is just as critical. As we heal, the support and non-judgment aspect of therapy helps release the trapped energies in the body. Just as venting to a close and supportive friend provides some relief, feeling alone and isolated with our problems often magnifies our pain. Human beings are the most socially dependent creatures on the planet. We simply cannot do everything on our own even if we try.
During a session, you may start feeling a lot of emotions, tension in the body, or even twitching in the body as we talk. It is important to let them happen, they are your nervous system releasing the blocked emotional energy. Yes, your body does in fact physically manifest sensations in the body as it heals. So while your problems are in your head, they also physically exist in your body!
As we target a trauma, limiting belief, or otherwise difficult event, your mind will often feel like it is drifting and other thoughts can seem like they are intruding. More often than not, those thoughts are actually not that random. As you follow those thoughts, sensations, and beliefs, your mind will find similar events in your past that have contributed to your current life stressor. It’s very common that what appears to be a single incident actually has many similar incidents that are adding to your pain. This has to do with the memory nodes and neural pathways in your brain.
Once the charge of the emotion drops far enough, we can then put in a positive belief to take its place. For example, if a person feels they cannot trust anyone ever, we could put in a belief of “I can learn to trust people.” This part is best if it’s up to you on what you want and feel is possible, although typically at the start of the session that positive belief feels like it is not possible and is wishful thinking at best.
In other words, EMDR works with specifically what you as the client wishes, and not what someone else says you should think or feel. This restores your own sense of power and control over yourself. Therefore, the idea that it could be some form of mind control abused by others is simply not realistic. You are not unconcious during sessions.
Is EMDR for me? That’s a more complex question. For many people it will work quite well. However, it can be very intense and challenging at times. And studies have shown that with certain severe and extreme mental conditions it can in fact be dangerous. This is why EMDR is a regulated therapy that one must be trained for and be a registered professional in order to use. Because it can work with the brain in such a powerful way, if you are in a situation where you are in a critical state and not in a safe place after therapy, it may be wise to wait until things settle down a bit before engaging it. For example, a person with an abusive spouse or family member that currently is living with them and is subject to continued abuse should wait before trying it. Ask your therapist what they think, they should be able to address your concerns.
What else can I expect? EMDR is not a magic bullet. Some of the targets we work with can take time to resolve. It is not something that will likely work in one or two sessions. Although I have seen to do it that fast from time to time. If you have dealt with an issue for years or decades, rewiring your thoughts and beliefs can be like building a muscle, it will grow stronger the more you do it. Our neural pathways become very well-traveled and it can be easy to fall back in to old patterns. This is why it is very important to follow up treatments and continue the work and eliminate other possible traumas, beliefs, and behaviors that do not serve you as you improve your life.
In the end, EMDR is a tool. One that needs the right therapist for you, and your own willingness to try to heal. That can be a tremendous act of courage for many, but it is one with potentially huge rewards. Although the machine used to aid in the therapy helps, it will not do it all on its own. In my practice, I have seen EMDR change lives quite rapidly and for some it has literally saved lives and not just enhance them. It has also done the same for me, and if you’re interested, it can do a lot for you too.