EMDR: A Comprehensive Approach to Psychological Well-Being
What Does EMDR Mean?
EMDR stands for "Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing."
Yes, this is a long and confusing name, but the name stuck and now it's hard to change it. It would have been easier to call it "Reprocessing Therapy," but EMDR it is.
So what is EMDR and how is it different?
EMDR is not a technique but rather a comprehensive therapy approach that desensitizes emotionally charged memories and past experiences so they can be reprocessed and understood in more adaptive ways.
In addition to desensitizing and reprocessing the past, EMDR also reduces the grip that current triggers and stressors can have us, while also providing tools to learn and develop new skills to respond to life demands.
EMDR is a brain and body-based approach that incorporates many useful and effective strategies from other forms of therapy while utilizing several strategies unique to EMDR, such as bilateral stimulation (which will be discussed below).
Essentially, EDMR helps to make your past experiences become another part of your life story so that they no longer hold you back or cause you to get triggered in the present. When your past is in the past, it becomes easier for you to begin responding to current and future situations rather than reacting to them.
Is There Research Supporting EMDR?
Yes! In fact, due to the research supporting EMDR (at least 20 randomized studies), it is now recognized as an effective treatment for trauma and other disturbing experiences by the American Psychiatric Association(1), the World Health Organization(2), and the Department of Veteran Affairs and Department of Defense(3).
To see a list of international guidelines and organizations recognizing the effectiveness of EMDR, click here(4).
To see a current list of research supporting the effectiveness of EMDR, you can visit the Francine Shapiro Library by clicking here(5).
What if I Don’t Have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)? Will EMDR Still Help Me?
To date, most of the formal research on EMDR and its effectiveness has been in regards to trauma treatment or the treatment of disturbing experiences.
Clinically, however, EMDR has shown to be useful for other concerns such as(6):
- Social phobia
- Generalized Anxiety
- Body Image Issues
Preliminary investigations are also indicating the EMDR may be useful for treating:
PTSD & the Little Traumas (little t’s) of Life
The difference between big “T’s” and little “t’s” is not so much in what happened to you but in how it impacted you. If it impacted you in a big way, you may develop what is known as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
If this is the case for you, you likely experience a range of symptoms such as flashbacks, difficulty feeling relaxed or letting your guard down, difficulty going to or staying asleep, irritability and agitation, and a sense that your life has been or will be cut short.
If your life experiences did not knock you over and completely overwhelm or frighten you, then you may not develop clinical PTSD. Rather, it may feel like your experiences or little “t’s” still had an impact on you and changed how you perceive yourself, others, and the world.
When we are not able to process our little “t” experiences adaptively, these experiences can pave the way for the development of low self-esteem, generalized anxiety, a fear of a certain object or situation, difficulty getting close to others, an inner critic or self-judgement, lack of self-trust, etc.
Very Early Little “t” Experiences
If a distressing event occurs in early childhood or even while you are in the womb, those experiences and the associated emotions and sensations can get “stuck” in the body and continue to be re-experienced to some degree as you grow up. Essentially, as Dr. Bessel van der Kolk(12) puts it, a world renowned trauma researcher and psychiatrist, the body keeps score of what happens in your life. As a result, these very early experiences can pave the path for how your body begins to react to other distressing experiences or challenges. This helps explains why many of my clients will say something like the following:
“I just don’t get why I’m reacting like this. I know different. I know better. I am smarter than this.”
According to the renowned author and cellular biologist, Dr. Bruce Lipton(13), once the body has learned a pattern (aka., a way of responding to stressors), it responds one million times faster than the pre-frontal cortex (which is our thinking brain). As a result, it is difficult to "think our way out of our worries."
The body responds much quicker than our rational logical brains. For healing to occur, we need to release what is being held in the body, re-program the body, and help the body settle and find a sense of calm. By doing this, our bodies can begin to let go of old unhelpful beliefs and begin to incorporate more adaptive and truthful beliefs.
EMDR helps your mind and body to process what it experienced in the past so these experience(s) can be left in the past; thus leaving you more able to respond to current life events and future stressors appropriately.
Simple Self-Assessment Question
An easy way to know if there is something in the past that is contributing to a present concern is to ask yourself this simple question:
Self-Question: “Am I over-reacting to certain situations?”
If you are, then there is likely some “juice” from previous experiences that haven’t been properly digested and therefore, these experiences continue to have an impact on your body’s responses to current experiences.
For a list of big “T” and little “t” trauma examples, click here.
The Adaptive Information Processing Model & EMDR
In order to understand how EMDR works, let's first go over what the Adaptive Information Processing Model (AIP) is, as this is the model that guides EMDR practice.
According to the AIP model, we have a physiologically based information processing system, which means that our experiences and memories (aka: information) are stored in a system of neurobiological memory networks. These memory networks store our experiences and memories with all the related thoughts, images, emotions, and sensations that occurred at the time we had these experiences.
When things go smoothly, life follows the principle “live and learn.” We are able to make sense of our experiences, use the information that is useful to us, disregard the information that isn't, update past experiences with new experiences, and then decide how to respond appropriately.
When our experiences overwhelm us, however, our natural ability to process information and to effectively learn from our experiences gets interrupted. If this happens, our distressing memories get stored in isolation with all the sensations, emotions, and thoughts that occurred during the initial experience. Often, the distressing sensations, emotions, and thoughts are not stored together in a cohesive memory, but rather in separate fragments, clusters, or pockets. This is why we can sometimes remember an image but not experience any emotion when we recall a past experience. Alternatively, this is also why we can sometimes “feel” an old memory but not remember exactly what happened. You might only recall one small part of the experience.
When this occurs, there is little opportunity to allow these experiences to "update" with new information, and thus, they can become "frozen in time." Often, this leads to past experiences getting triggered with all sensations, emotions, images, and thoughts that occurred when the initial experience was first stored in your body and memory. Again, you may recognise this as happening for you if you have ever found yourself saying something like “I know better so why do I react this way,” or “when ________ happens, I feel like ________ is happening all over again.”
Here are three case examples to illustrate what I am trying to describe above.
Let’s say that as a child, maybe 4-6 years of age, you were struggling to put on your shoes. One of your parents came back inside the house and barked at you to hurry up. You tried to say that you were trying but that you need help getting your shoes on. In your parent’s frustration, he or she yelled back,
“I don’t care what you need, what’s important right now is getting into that car and doing it fast. Let’s go!”
So you scrambled as fast as you could and in a clumsy fashion, you moved towards the car with that one shoe feeling like it is not quite on right. As a child, you don’t have a lot of life experiences to make sense of what just happened, plus due to your young development and your age at the time, you had egocentric thinking and were prone to believe that what happened was your fault. As a result, this experience, which really upset you, was stored in your body with all the sensations, emotions, and thoughts that arose at that time. The sensations may have been feeling rushed, feeling tension in your chest, or a gulp in your throat. The emotions may have been frustration, sadness, feeling alone or feeling unheard. The thoughts that arose may have been:
“What I need is not important,”
“No one listens to me,”
“I’m not good at what I try to do,”
“I can’t get things done…fast enough.”
Over the years, experiences that cause similar sensations or emotions may serve to strengthen these negative beliefs about yourself thus building an unhelpful network of many memories, a network that gets triggered whenever you feel “less than.” Alternatively, this memory may be locked into its own capsule and not consciously remembered as you move through life until a later experience happens to ignite it…leaving you to wonder why you are over-reacting to this new experience.