What is EMDR therapy?
The mind can often heal itself naturally, in the same way as the body does. Much of this natural coping mechanism occurs during sleep, particularly during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. Francine Shapiro developed Eye Movement Desensitization (EMD) in 1987, using this natural process in order to successfully treat Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Shapiro later renamed the therapy EMDR therapy has been used to effectively treat a wide range of mental health challenges.
What happens when you experience trauma?
Most of the time your body routinely manages new information and experiences without you being aware of it. However, when something out of the ordinary occurs and you experience trauma by an overwhelming event (e.g. a car accident) or by being repeatedly subjected to traumatic experiences (e.g. childhood abuse/neglect), your natural coping mechanism can become overloaded. This overloading can result in disturbing experiences remaining frozen in your brain or being "unprocessed". Such unprocessed memories and feelings are stored in the limbic system of your brain in a "raw" and emotional form, rather than in a verbal “story” mode. This limbic system maintains traumatic memories in an isolated memory network that is associated with emotions and physical sensations, and which are disconnected from the brain’s cortex where we use language to store memories. The limbic system’s traumatic memories can be continually triggered when you experience events similar to the difficult experiences you have been through. Sometimes the memory itself is long forgotten, but the painful feelings such as anxiety, panic, anger or despair are continually triggered in the present. Your ability to live in the present and learn from new experiences can then become inhibited. EMDR therapy helps create the connections between your brain’s memory networks, enabling your brain to process the traumatic memory in a very natural way.
What is an EMDR therapy session like?
EMDR therapy uses the natural healing ability of your body. After a thorough assessment, you will be asked specific questions about a particular disturbing memory. Eye movements, similar to those during REM sleep, will be recreated. This can be done by asking you to watch the therapist's finger moving backwards and forwards across your visual field, watching a video of a moving ball, or following a bar of moving lights with your eyes. Bilateral stimulation can also be induced through the use of sound alternating right to left on headphones or tapping on alternating sides of the body instead. The eye movements, alternating sounds, or tapping will last for a short while and then stop. You will then be asked to report back on the experiences you have had during each of these sets of eye movements. Experiences during a session may include changes in thoughts, images, feelings, and bodily sensations. With repeated sets of bilateral stimulation, the memory tends to change in such a way that it loses its painful intensity and simply becomes a neutral memory of an event in the past. Other associated memories may also heal at the same time. This linking of related memories can lead to a dramatic and rapid improvement in many aspects of your life.
What can EMDR therapy be used for?
In addition to its use for the treatment of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, EMDR therapy has been successfully used to treat:
- anxiety and panic attacks
- sleep problems
- complicated grief
- pain relief, phantom limb pain
- self-esteem and performance anxiety
Can anyone benefit from EMDR?
EMDR therapy can accelerate therapy by resolving the impact of your past traumas and allowing you to live more fully in the present. It is not, however, appropriate for everyone. The process is rapid, and any disturbing experiences, if they occur at all, last for a comparatively short period of time. Nevertheless, you need to be aware of, and willing to experience, the strong feelings and disturbing thoughts, which sometimes occur during sessions. We will also work on resources and coping skills to be used during and between sessions to support you through these more distressing experiences.
How long does treatment take?
EMDR therapy can be brief focused treatment or part of a longer psychotherapy program. EMDR therapy sessions can be for 60 to 90 minutes.
Will I will remain in control and empowered?
During EMDR therapy you will remain in control, fully alert and wide-awake. This is not a form of hypnosis and you can stop the process at any time. Throughout the session, the therapist will support and facilitate your own self-healing while intervening as little as possible. Reprocessing is usually experienced as something that happens spontaneously, and new connections and insights are felt to arise quite naturally from within. As a result, most people experience EMDR therapy as a natural and very empowering therapy.
Are there any after/side effects I should be aware of?
Following an EMDR session, you may continue to process things more than usual- other memories, thoughts, dreams, or whatever comes up is only feedback. You may also feel especially tired after an EMDR session. Plan to keep a journal and write down anything that comes up, and we can work on any “leftovers” together the next time we meet. As with any form of therapy, we may be processing memories and emotions that were locked up and stored away, and revisiting these could stir things up a bit. Simply observe what you are experiencing without judging, and we will work through this together next time. We will also work on resources and coping skills to be used during and between sessions. If there are times when you have an important event in the days following your therapy session or do not feel ready to engage in emotionally “heavy” content, you may instead inform your therapist you prefer that week to engage in talk therapy, and you can return to EMDR sessions when you are ready. If it gets to be too much processing between sessions, you can call your therapist for an earlier follow-up session and support with using coping skills in the interim.
Parents, your child/teen will have worked on some memories that had been contributing to their symptoms, and it is possible they may appear a bit more out of sorts or unusually dysregulated for a day or two. Your child/teen may also feel especially tired after an EMDR session. This is their brain working on resolving the material we are working on clearing. It’s similar to having a broken limb still hurting after the doctor puts on the cast- some pain and swelling are expected for a few days, but if it gets especially bad or concerning, you would call the doctor. The same is true for children/teens working through trauma. Your child/teen may be more grumpy, grouchy, clingy, or have strange/bad dreams and trouble sleeping or could also seem strangely calm or distracted. This is to be expected the first few times we do EMDR trauma reprocessing, but it will get better and your child/teen’s symptoms that they began with in therapy will also improve. It is always helpful to be especially supportive and loving while a child/teen is dealing with distress and trauma, and we will all work on resources and coping skills to be used during and between sessions. If it gets to be too much, you can call your child/teen’s therapist for an earlier follow-up session and support with using coping skills in the interim.
What evidence is there that EMDR is a successful treatment?
EMDR therapy is an innovative clinical treatment, which has successfully helped over a million individuals. The validity and reliability of EMDR therapy has been established by rigorous research. There are now nineteen controlled studies into EMDR therapy making it the most thoroughly researched method used in the treatment of trauma, (Details on https://www.emdria.org/) and is recommended by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) as an effective treatment for PTSD.