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EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) therapy is an evidence based, integrated psychotherapy treatment developed to relieve symptoms caused by disturbing and unresolved life experiences. EMDR therapy is known as the most effective method for healing PTSD and process other disturbances that leave symptoms such as anxiety, depression, grief, intrusive memories, panic attacks, flashbacks, nightmares, phobias, and relationship problems. Some examples of common disruptive, disturbing, and traumatic events are traumatic child birthing, military related incidents and exposure, auto accident, physical injuries, verbal, physical, and/or emotional abuse, witnessing violence, an accident, or death, rape, sexual assault or harassment, loss of a loved one, sudden loss, neglect and abandonment. That is not an exhaustive list, just a few common ones.
The goal of EMDR therapy is to support an individual to identify and process these stuck pieces, the disturbing event, so that the symptoms can decrease, and one can feel more alive. This process is through bilateral stimulation, right-to-left eye movement, tactile stimulation (hand paddles), or audible sound. The bilateral stimulation activates the right and left hemispheres of the brain to work at the same time supporting an individual to process emotional experiences, which are trapped or blocked in the nervous system. This ultimately generates a mind-body connection and allows oneself to free the blocks and regain mental and emotional health.
Although heavily researched and evidence based, it remains a mystery how EMDR therapy works. However, we do know when a person is very upset also known as triggered, one’s brain cannot process information as it does normally or when not triggered. In a single moment, an event is frozen in time in our nervous system and later recalling or remembering the event may feel as horrible as going through it the first time. This is because the images, sounds, smells, and feelings have not changed and stuck or trapped in your nervous system. When triggered it is as if you are reliving a particular moment all over again. A common example of this is a war veteran hearing fireworks or gun shots and being triggered back into a past experience. One’s brain does not differentiate between what is happening presently and what already happened. Another example is driving past a location where you or someone you care about was in an auto accident. Your system will likely become activated, heart racing, sweaty palms, floaty feeling, etc. You might have heard the saying; the body remembers what the brain forgets. These stored memories have a lasting, negative effect on the way an individual see and relates to their environment.
EMDR therapy has a direct effect on the way the brain functions; normal information processing is resumed following a successful EMDR therapy session. The images, sounds, and feelings are no longer upsetting one’s nervous system when the disturbing event is brought to mind. The event is still in one’s memory; however, the disturbance and emotional connection to it dissipates. Going back to the auto accident location. After reprocessing and desensitizing, you will likely be able to return to that location without the somatic activation.
During EMDR therapy, we work with the client to identify a specific problem as the focus of the session. The client calls to mind the disturbing issue or event, what was seen, felt, heard, thought, and what thoughts and beliefs currently are held about that event. Then we facilitate with directional movement of the eyes or other bilateral stimulation of the brain while the client focuses on the disturbing material. The client just notices whatever comes to mind without making any effort to control direction or content. People process information uniquely, based on personal experiences and values. It is important to understand that there is no way for the client to do EMDR therapy incorrectly. Sets of eye movements or bilateral stimulation are continued until the memory becomes less disturbing and is associated with positive thought and beliefs about one's self. During EMDR therapy, one might experience intense emotions and by the end of the session, most people report a great reduction in the level of disturbance. EMDR is a process over several sessions.
While EMDR is highly effective in a relatively short amount of time it is a process similar to regular talk therapy. Results can vary and are individualistic and largely dependent on the client-therapist relationship. The relationship is critical. Once trust is established between client and therapist, profound shifts can happen and rather quickly offering immediate, and long-lasting cease of symptoms. We think of EMDR as talk therapy on steroids. What might take months or years to move through in traditional talk therapy can occur in just weeks with EMDR.
Fears surface when thinking about doing EMDR. Some people speak about this therapy being intense and really big emotions surface. Yes, the process can be intense and big emotions do come up; however, the sessions and process are monitored and designed to work at each client’s appropriate pace and readiness.
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