What is EMDR?
I first learned about EMDR about six years ago when I started working with more clients who were suffering from severe trauma. Some of these clients had experienced distress in their lives for many years and seen other therapists before me and were often taking medication to treat their insomnia, distressing memories, anxiety, depression, and nightmares. They were not benefiting from traditional psychotherapy. As they talked and shared about what had happened to them or what they witnessed that was horrific, they seemed to get worse instead of better.
Research led me to learning how to approach trauma differently and learning techniques like EMDR. At first I was skeptical of EMDR because it had the clinician waving his or her hand in front of the client to create a series of eye movements as the client reprocessed the trauma. After reading that there was significant and rigorous research to support it and notable scholars in the field endorsing it like Bessel van der Kolk, MD, I had to know more. During the extensive training where I learned how to use EMDR, I had the opportunity to serve as a practice client as well as a clinician. During these practical experiences I saw the ease and effectiveness of EMDR had on my own issue I brought up and those of my colleagues. This cemented for me that EMDR was an effective and relevant tool to help treat trauma.
What I like about EMDR is that in many cases it is rapid, safe, and effective. EMDR does not involve the use of drugs or hypnosis. It is a simple, non-invasive patient-therapist collaboration in which healing can happen. I also learned that it is highly effective for a wide range of disorders including chronic pain, phobias, depression, panic attacks, eating disorders and poor self-image, stress, stage fright, performance anxiety, as well as for recovery from sexual abuse and traumatic incidents. Many clients who have made slow progress in the past, or who have not benefited from more traditional therapies say that with EMDR they have finally found something that works for them!
How Does EMDR Work?
EMDR combines traditional therapy, particularly cognitive-behavioral therapy with a series of bilateral stimulations; right/left eye movements or tactile stimulations which activate both sides of the brain releasing emotional experiences that are frozen in the nervous system.
When a traumatic or highly disturbing experience happens the brain goes into survival mode and prepares the body to fight, flee, or freeze depending upon the situation. Cognitively the brain interprets the sensory information coming in as to whether there is danger so an immediate response can be made. A number of physiological changes occur at this time. For example, adrenaline kicks in and your heart starts beating
faster. Your digestive system slows down to preserve energy. You may experience an increase in vigilance and focus, increased irritability, poor memory, and sweat.
When disturbing experiences happen, they are stored in the brain with all the sights, sounds, thoughts and feelings that accompany it. When a person is very upset, the brain seems to be unable to process the experience as it would normally. In a sense their thoughts and feelings are trapped or frozen in the nervous system and there is a loss of connection with time and space. Since the brain cannot process these emotions, the experience and/or it's accompanying feelings are often suppressed from consciousness. However, the distress lives on in the nervous system where it causes disturbances in the emotional functioning of the person. An example of this is when a person is “triggered” by something in the environment, it is like the individual reexperiences the event the way it originally happened.
The EMDR Technique does two very important things. First, it "unlocks" the negative memories and emotions stored in the nervous system, and second, it helps the brain to successfully process the experience. As troubling images and feelings are processed by the brain via the eye-movement patterns of EMDR, resolution of the issues and a more peaceful state are achieved.
Before EMDR can be used, I need to learn some things about you and the specific problems you want help with. The first one or two sessions are used to gather this information and assess your readiness for EMDR. Then when we are ready to start EMDR, I will have you call to mind a disturbing issue or event and what was seen, felt, heard, thought, etc. I will also want to know what are your current thoughts or beliefs about this event. Identifying this is sometimes the most challenging part of the process.
As the thoughts and feelings come to the surface, I will guide you through a series of eye movements or have you use pulsars that you hold in your hand, or alternatively use a set of headphones that emit alternating tones. Which modality we use is a personal choice and most comfortable for you. As we do a set of eye movements you just notice what comes to mind without any effort to control the direction or content. After a set of eye movements we take a break and you briefly share what you noticed. We continue with the eye movements until the memory becomes less disturbing and is associated with positive thoughts and beliefs about one self; for example, “I did the best I could” or “It was not my fault”. During the beginning of EMDR you may experience intense emotions, but by the end most people report a great reduction in the level of disturbance. Often clients have told me, “I remember what happened, but it does not bother me the way it did before.” They feel more relaxed, confident, and at ease.
Research studies show that EMDR is very effective in helping people process emotionally painful and traumatic experiences. When used in conjunction with other therapy modalities, EMDR helps move the client quickly from emotional distress to peaceful resolution of the issues or events involved. How EMDR works specifically, nobody knows for sure. Some of the things we do know is that it involves both hemispheres of the brain. We also know that it creates dual-attention; the client simultaneously while recalling the event, follows the eye movements. We also know that it is an exposure technique in that you are recalling and reprocessing a disturbing event.
How Long Does EMDR Take?
Typically, an EMDR session lasts from 60 to 90 minutes. The length of the session depends upon a number of factors, including the nature and history of the problem and the degree of trauma. In some cases, where a single recent traumatic event is involved, a single session of EMDR may be all that is required. However, a more typical course of treatment is somewhere between 5 and 15 sessions usually on a weekly basis. For individuals with a history of multiple painful experiences and years of feeling bad about them, a number of EMDR sessions may be needed.
EMDR sessions work amazingly fast. Processing even the most difficult memories can be achieved in a fraction of the time it would have taken with traditional therapy. The positive, long-term results of EMDR therapy affect all levels of the client's well-being - mental, emotional and physical, so that their responses return to normalcy and health.
What Kind Of Problems Can Be Helped By EMDR?
- Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
- A history of sexual and / or physical abuse or assault
- Been a victim of a crime or serious accident
- Witnessed an accident or serious accident
- combat memories and experiences
- other very emotional or upsetting experiences
- having disturbing memories
- complicated grief
- stress reduction
- stage fright or performance anxiety
- panic attacks
- chronic feelings of detachment (dissociative disorders)
- pain disorders
- reoccurring nightmares
- obsessive thoughts or compulsive behavior
- difficulty trusting people
- fear of being alone or with others
- fear of flying
- lack of motivation
- poor self image
- frequent feelings of guilt and shame
- explosive or irrational anger