EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), is a psychotherapy to help reduce the impact of distressing experiences from the past (big or small) that intrude on your present-day life. It is used to treat troubling symptoms such as anxiety, depression, anger, panic, guilt, and any post-traumatic reactions. It can also be helpful in enhancing emotional resources such as self-esteem and confidence.
We all use our minds to cope with predictable stress, figure things out, reflect our emotions and self-esteem, and reflect on our experiences. Previous memories/experiences get stored in our brain and pathways are created that act as automatic templates for future learning. Usually, this is helpful.
However, the experience of trauma overwhelms our ability to cope effectively at the time and the experience gets stored in our memory system differently and in ways that make it difficult to respond as we normally would. People may “over-react” or behave in “irrational” ways that do not make sense to others, or to themselves. Additionally, we may develop negative ways to think about ourselves in relations to trauma (e.g., I caused it” or “I’m a bad person”), and these negative beliefs/thoughts may influence how we think about ourselves in other situations.
The result of EMDR is that clients are able to release what is unhelpful and distressing from the experience, and take away what is helpful and adaptive. It also allows for the process of replacing unhealthy, negative beliefs associated with traumatic memories with more healthy, positive beliefs. This leads to functioning in healthier ways, and being able to think of past events without feeling distressed.
EMDR: Frequently Asked Questions
What is EMDR? Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a non-drug, non-hypnosis psychotherapy procedure. In its original form, the therapist guides the client in concentrating on a troubling memory or emotion while moving the eyes rapidly back and forth (by following the therapist’s fingers). This rapid eye movement, which occurs naturally during dreaming, seems to speed the client’s movement through the healing process. Many therapists now use other methods to stimulate the right and left hemispheres of the brain, such as pulsars in the hands or auditory beeps through a headset.
What is it used for? EMDR is used to treat troubling symptoms such as anxiety, depression, guilt, anger, and post-traumatic reactions. It can also be used to enhance emotional resources such as confidence and self-esteem.
What happens in a session? EMDR is different for everyone, because the healing process is guided from within. Sometimes past issues or memories come up, which are related to the current concern. Sometimes a painful memory brings up unpleasant emotions or body sensations. This is normal and generally passes within a few minutes, as long as the EMDR is not stopped. The upsetting emotion or memory often seems to fade into the past and lose its power.
Why bring up a painful memory? When painful memories are avoided, they keep their disturbing power and can interfere with our present functioning. However, a flashback or nightmare can feel as upsetting and overwhelming as the original experience, yet not be helpful. Likewise, over-reacting to current life events (due to past wounds) can interfere with relationships, career/academic goals, etc. In therapy, and with EMDR, you can face the memory, emotions, or core self-beliefs in a safe setting, so that you do not feel overwhelmed. Then you can get through it and move on, so that the past no longer interferes with the present.
Will I be in control? It is hard to predict the thoughts, feelings, sensations, or memories that might come up during EMDR. It depends upon each individual’s natural healing process. You are always in charge of whether to continue or stop, whether to take a break, and how deeply to probe. You can also decide how much to tell the therapist about the experience; even if you choose to keep most information to yourself, healing will happen.
Are there any precautions? Yes. There are specific procedures to be followed depending on your presenting problem, emotional stability, medical condition, and other factors. It is very important that the therapist be formally trained in EMDR. Otherwise, there is a risk that EMDR would be incomplete, ineffective, or even harmful.
What happens afterwards? You may continue to process the material for days or even weeks after the session, perhaps having new insights, vivid dreams, strong feelings, or memory recall. This may feel confusing, but it is just a continuation of the healing process, and should simply be reported to the therapist at the next session. (However, if you become concerned or depressed, you should call your therapist immediately.) As the distressing symptoms fade, you can work with the therapist on developing new skills and ways of coping.
How can I get EMDR treatment? The EMDR International Association maintains a listing of EMDR therapists, including certified therapists who have received advanced training and supervision in EMDR. Other referral sources include EMDRIA-approved trainers and local mental health providers.