What is EMDR?
EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. That’s a mouthful, for sure. It means moving your eyes in a rapid yet rhythmic way while recalling a traumatic event. Doing so helps reduce the intensity of your emotions and sometimes the bodily sensations you associate with that event. The therapist will guide you to shift your thoughts to more realistic and often more positive ones.
By repeating this treatment over a series of sessions, your responses to your memories of the event decrease and become less disturbing to you and less disabling, until you can remember the event without anxiety and be more in control of your thoughts about the event.
EMDR therapy addresses three interrelated aspects of your needs—your memories of the event(s), your current level of anxiety or distress associated with the event(s), and actions you need to take to eliminate or minimize your emotional response to the event(s).
The goal of EMDR is not to banish your memories of a traumatic event but to change your response to the event from disruptive and negative thoughts, bodily feelings, and sometimes behaviours to far more positive and productive responses. That is the “processing” aspect of EMDR. The negative responses come from the traumatic experience being unresolved and therefore unsettling. By processing the event, you will recall the event in a more neutral way and experience more positive responses.
While we don’t know yet exactly how EMDR works, we know from extensive research that it’s effective. Therapists who use the technique have found that EMDR weakens the emotional effect of negative experiences. Before and after each EMDR treatment, your therapist will ask you to rate your level of distress then guide you to recall the distressing memory while noticing the rising emotions and sensations and allow the images, sensations, emotions, and thoughts to move through you as you just notice.
Reprocessing a past event is like watching a scary or intense movie. You notice the images, sensations, emotions, and thoughts that arise as the movie unfolds, but you also recognize you are not acting in the movie, simply experiencing it. You just notice what comes up and allow this material to move through you so it can be processed, healed, and put into long-term storage. Only this time, after reprocessing it, this material can be stored as a neutral memory without the intense emotional charge or sensations continuing to be attached to it. To put this another way, reprocessing a memory is not “re-living” a memory, it’s re-experiencing it. This allows your body to digest aspects of the memory that were frozen in time with their raw intensity. And like a movie, you will know that although you are experiencing it, you are not actually in it. You are not actually reliving it. You are simply observing what arises when you bring that memory to mind so that you can allow your body to process it and release the associated intense emotions, sensations, and faulty beliefs that were originally attached to it. And all this happens while you are guided to remain in the present and aware of your current physical environment.
Most of us, at a basic level, recognize the relationship between eye movement and emotions as well. When you’re frustrated, you may roll your eyes, for example. Or when you’re surprised, you widen your eyes. When we’re talking with others, we pay more attention to their eye expressions and movements than to the words they are saying to “read” how they are feeling in the conversation. Research suggests that the eye movements in EMDR replicate the same function that occurs during our REM sleep when our eyes move rapidly while dreaming. It is believed that this rapid eye movement helps us to process and make sense of our experiences and to create connections between everything we have learned and experienced. It builds an interconnected network of memories and knowledge that, when not fragmented by trauma (e.g., like a computer that is running efficiently), we can use to draw from to guide how we approach current and future circumstances.
NO MEDICATION, NO SIDE EFFECTS
One of the best things about EMDR is that there’s no medication involved. The technique uses your own mind and body to change how you respond to past traumatic events. There is no evidence of any side effects (aside from you changing and growing). A certified, skilled therapist guides the process and ensures that you always stay within the window of what you can tolerate.
EMDR has gained significant support over the past 30 years, with sound evidence of its power and effectiveness. EMDR Canada cites some 20 studies that have shown consistently that EMDR decreases or eliminates the symptoms of PTSD for many people. EMDR’s positive effect is to separate your memories of the traumatic event from your emotional responses to that event. The outcome is reduced emotional consequences or impact of the event.
EMDR sessions at PsychSolutions last 50-90 minutes. During the session, your therapist will guide you to move your eyes while also guiding your exploration and processing of the selected traumatic memory. At the end of each session, your therapist will assist you in bringing things to a close by helping you re-establish a sense of calm and safety. Time will be reserved to discuss the material that came up for you, to answer any questions you may have, and to determine what would be important to focus on after leaving the appointment.
In your first few sessions, your therapist will work with you to assess your needs, the number and type of traumatic events you have experienced, your level of distress, and whether EMDR offers an effective approach to treating your symptoms. Your therapist will also ensure you understand what EMDR is and what it might do to help you. You may also discuss combining EMDR with other therapeutic approaches.
WHAT EMDR IS EFFECTIVE FOR?
The most common use of EMDR has been for PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). The Department of Veteran’s Affairs in the U.S. has issued joint practice guidelines with the Department of Defense, recommending EMDR strongly for the treatment of PTSD in military personnel. The American Psychological Association also supports the use of EMDR, noting that the approach may help those who struggle to talk about traumatic events they’ve experienced. EMDR does not require a lot of talking, which works well for people who find talking or disclosure of intimate/personal details difficult. The Department of Health in the U.K. and the National Council for Mental Health in Israel are two more of many international health agencies and government departments that have endorsed EMDR as an effective treatment.
EMDR also helps people struggling with trauma or anxiety after a motor vehicle accident (MVA) or feeling trapped in past trauma such as abuse. EMDR has also proven helpful for people struggling with pain, anxiety, stress, panic attacks, grief, eating disorders, dissociative disorders, personality disorders, and other emotion-based needs.
If you have any questions about EMDR or would like to discuss if this technique would be appropriate for you, contact us here.