EMDR in a Nutshell
What is EMDR?
EMDR stands for Eye-Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. In 1987, Dr. Francine Shapiro, an American Psychologist, observed that moving her eyes from side to side appeared to reduce the disturbance of negative thoughts and memories. This discovery lead to the development of EMDR, a therapy recognized by the World Health Organization for the treatment of trauma*.
How does it work?
The beginning stages of EMDR focus on helping a client stabilize - that is, helping the client regulate his/her nervous system, thereby creating the ability to move between emotional states with ease. For example, the ability to ground oneself and experience calm is an important part of the stabilization phase. Next, as the therapist moves her hand back and forth in front of the client, the client follows the movement with his/her eyes (there are also other ways of activating the bilateral movement but this is the most researched approach). The therapist guides the client to the disturbing memories or sensations, and from there, the client becomes the leader of the processing. Through minimal discussion, and focused concentration by the client, the disturbance gradually reduces and eventually disappears. This process actually allows multiple parts of the brain to communicate and ‘metabolize’ or ‘digest’ the disturbing material, resulting in notable decrease of every day symptoms (such as anxiety, depression, flashbacks, insomnia, phobias, impulsivity, procrastination, addictive behaviours, shame, and all kinds of other unwanted experiences).
Who is it for?
EMDR is best known for its success with PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder). It’s also shown to be effective for many other distressing symptoms, as described above. It can be useful for children or adults, and for most mood-related issues (acute or chronic). Childhood trauma (abuse, neglect, illness, accidents, family transitions, attachment wounds, etc.) which can affect adulthood, are a good fit for EMDR treatment. It can also be helpful when we feel overwhelmed by major decisions in life, or when we are trying to make sense of our inner experiences.
What makes it so fantastic?
EMDR is holistic approach. It accesses what is believed to happen naturally during REM sleep (although the client does not sleep in session!). Have you ever seen someone in deep sleep? Have you noticed their eyes moving? This is thought to be the same processing mechanism. We are all built with an adaptive processing system. However, sometimes traumatic incidents get ‘stuck’ and are not easily processed by ourselves. This is where EMDR can help by facilitating our innate ability to process difficult experiences and reduce triggers or symptoms.
EMDR therapy is not simply focused on how to cope with difficulties, but on how to reduce or eradicate the difficult symptoms all together.
Finally, clients like this approach because while it does require some discussion and story-telling of the past, it doesn’t require the depth of discussion that traditional talk-therapy does. Trauma is not just psychological, it’s physiological. The processing goes beyond our talking-brain, and deeper into the non-verbal parts which hold onto difficult material. This reduces the chances of being re-traumatized by the therapy process.
I am currently using EMDR in my practice, and am seeing some exciting results! I’m so pleased with the efficacy that I am currently working on my EMDR certification. The field of psychotherapy is starting to appreciate that this is an effective, exciting, holistic, and useful approach for so many people.
*There are many types of trauma (Big T and little t). Most humans experience one form or another, in obvious or subtle ways. Life is traumatic, but with it comes opportunities for growth and healing.