What is EMDR?
EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) is an evidence based integrative form of psychotherapy that enables people to heal and recover from the impact of disturbing life experiences such as trauma. It is based on the theory that present day difficulties are rooted in distressing past experiences which are stored maladaptively in the memory network. The EMDR clinician assists the client in identifying, accessing, and re-processing distressing memories until they no longer have a detrimental impact on functioning.
What does a typical EMDR session look like?
EMDR clinicians follow a protocol which allows them to help clients systematically address present day difficulties, distressing memories from the past, and to instill resources for desired future outcomes. After assisting clients in identifying past experiences which are triggering symptoms, the therapist asks a series of questions to help clients access those memories. Next, clients are asked to focus on aspects of the memory and allow free associations to arise while using their eyes to track the therapist’s hand as it moves in a back and forth bilateral motion. Other forms of bilateral stimulation can also be used such as auditory tones or tapping. It has been theorized that the eye movements (or other form of bilateral stimulation) stimulate the brain to make new connections and re-process the memory via the mechanisms involved in rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, the phase of sleep during which we dream. The therapist periodically checks in with the client throughout this process in order to understand how processing is proceeding. Over time, clients may report feeling less distress and having more adaptive, positive beliefs associated with the memory. For example, a victim of a car accident shifts from feeling fear and believing she may die to holding the firm belief that “I am alive and I am safe in this moment.”
Who can benefit from EMDR?
EMDR is well researched and highly regarded as an effective treatment for post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). While research has not yet proven that EMDR can treat other disorders, there is research to suggest that people can have a high level of disturbance from events which would not qualify them for a PTSD diagnosis (for example, negative experiences with parents or peers). That level of disturbance, the related emotions, negative beliefs about self, and the distress experienced in the body may be reduced or eliminated with EMDR. Some such conditions that may be traced to earlier negative experiences include panic attacks, phobias, complicated grief, anxiety, and depression.