Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) was developed by psychologist Dr. Francine Shapiro in the late 1980s to resolve trauma-related disorders caused by exposure to distressing events such as rape or military combat. However, in recent years EMDR has been used to successfully address many other issues for people of all walks of life.
Dr. Shapiro, through her large body of research and patient work, points out that not only major traumas have lasting effects. She refers to large traumas as “large T events,” most often diagnosed as PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). But our lives are filled with “small t events” as well. Explains Dr. Shapiro, “Small t events are those more prevalent experiences that make us feel unsafe, unloved, without control or hope. These can be humiliations, or failures, or losses of any kind.”*
These traumatic events may be situations that are either experienced personally or witnessed. For example, EMDR is particularly effective in addressing:
- Emotionally painful or frightening experiences, such as accidents (e.g., a car accident)
- Acts of violence, the threat of violence, or abuse
- Natural disasters, house fires
- Depression, including post-partum depression
- Death of a loved one
- Job loss, divorce, serious illness, or any other major life disruption
- Witnessing frequent suffering through one’s occupation, such as police officers; firefighters; EMTs; doctors and nurses, particularly emergency room or ICU staff; hospice workers or other caregivers
- Military/combat experiences
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
… [I]n 1999, both the American Psychological Association and the International Society of Traumatic Stress Studies approved EMDR as a valid therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder.”
Click below for more detailed information about EMDR and its applications and benefits.
As you reflect on your own life, you may recall having experienced trauma. Unresolved trauma can hold you back, or “block” you, or may affect your very sense of self-worth and confidence. But whether or not you can consciously recall all past traumas, losses, or falsely held beliefs regarding your capabilities or worthiness, they may color your current life in shades of gray, robbing you of a sense of contentment and joy. You may feel inauthentic, no matter how successful you are, how much you have achieved, your educational or financial status, or how others perceive you.
When traumas remain unresolved you are not functioning from a place of wholeness. Unfounded fears or phobias may develop, or perhaps physical illness/ailments. You may comfort yourself with excessive or unhealthy food, or by shopping. You may try to numb yourself with substance use or abuse. Or you just may not feel comfortable and at peace within yourself.
People can approach the negative events or traumas in their lives from a rational, intellectual, or spiritual point of view, but the memories causing the distress simply aren’t stored properly to respond fully to these approaches. Talking about trauma, although comforting at times, usually does not significantly lessen its effect. Traumatic memories are stored on a physiological level, held in the body by emotions that were experienced at the time of the event.
The brain is part of the body, not an isolated entity. We remember this when we experience a flash of intuition and call it a “gut instinct.” We often take for granted the body’s ability to heal, without any conscious thought on our part, a wound or a broken bone. In the same way as physical healing, the brain self-regulates and employs strategies to heal itself, preferably quickly. EMDR facilitates this process by allowing access to the traumatic memories and emotions that are stored in the right hemisphere of the brain, which cannot be processed by language and logic as these are left brain functions. The theory is that through bilateral stimulation, EMDR establishes a connection between the right and left hemispheres, allowing the traumatic memories and experiences to be processed so that the information can then be addressed (desensitized).
Naturally children are very resilient and many negative incidences that they experience, which adults may perceive as problematic, instead serve to facilitate personal strength and coping skills in the child. Young people vary a great deal. What may prove to be traumatic for one child could be shrugged off and easily forgotten by another. Adults who know the child well (e.g., parents, teachers, coaches, etc.) need to observe the child’s reaction to the incident and follow their instincts in any given situation. Not every incident that could possibly cause trauma requires professional intervention, and this is for the parent to decide. Children can be given the necessary care and attention at the time of the incident that will enable them to adapt and integrate the experience as part of their life’s ups and downs.
The goal of EMDR therapy is to help the brain process these distressing memories and images, reducing their influence and allowing you to develop the ability to cope with what you had experienced. You will still remember the traumatic event, but it will not be charged with high levels of emotion any longer.
… [The] movements involved in EMDR might be similar to what occurs naturally during dreaming or REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. It may be thought of as a physiologically-based therapy that allows a person to see material in a new and less distressing way. Others believe it reactivates parts of the brain that were “shut down” as a coping mechanism … allowing the negative, painful emotions to give way to more resolved, empowered feelings.”
EMDR differs from other forms of therapy. It uses “bilateral stimulation” to process negative memories and beliefs and replaces them with a more positive image reflecting a new belief. Bilaterial stimulation consists of side to side eye movements following the therapist’s finger, taps or vibrations (e.g., using a Tac-Scan device), or auditory tones to communicate with the mind. We will explore the best bilateral stimulation method to use during your session(s) from these options.
EMDR therapy is an 8-phase process; don’t let that intimidate you, however, as we will move seamlessly and effectively through these phases during each session(s). The phases are: (1) discussion of the treatment plan and the target for EMDR; (2) identification by the client of a “safe place” image or memory; (3) identification of a “snapshot” image representing the trauma, an associated negative statement, and a more preferable positive self-statement; (4) focusing simultaneously on the image, the negative statement, and the disturbing emotion/body sensation in conjunction with bilateral stimulation (“desensitization”); (5) focus on the positive self-statement in conjunction with bilateral stimulation (“installation”); (6) a mental body scan; (7) debriefing and support; and (8) reevaluation.
EMDR is a focused system, and you will become aware of a shift in your thoughts and feelings regarding your incident/issue by the end of the first session. If time restraints, or the severity of the traumatic memories, do not allow us to finish processing the targeted trauma, then we will end the session with relaxation exercises to bring you back to a peaceful state. (These will also be helpful for you to use between sessions.)
When the distressing or traumatic event is an isolated, single incident (e.g., a traffic accident), approximately one to three EMDR sessions are typically necessary to resolve the issue. When the trauma is more severe–such as physical, sexual, or emotional abuse; parental neglect; severe illness, accident, injury, or health-related trauma that results in chronic impairment to health and well-being; or combat trauma–the time to heal will naturally be longer. Complex or multiple traumas may require numerous EMDR sessions for the treatment to be complete, robust, and long-lasting.
… [T]he main benefit of EMDR is the speed at which deep-seated problems can be resolved.” – HelpGuide.org
EMDR has been an indispensible tool in my practice. It has provided me with the opportunity to witness and share my clients’ relief when they finally become free of the burden of trauma that they have carried with them, sometimes briefly, sometimes for most of their lives.
Click to learn more about how your initial EMDR session with me will work:
What to Expect From Our First Session
*Source: EMDR: The Breakthrough “Eye Movement” Therapy for Overcoming Stress and Trauma (Updated Edition), by Francine Shapiro & Margot Silk Forrest