What is EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing)?
EMDR helps people heal from the symptoms and emotional distress due to trauma. People often think of trauma must be life threatening, a serious injury or sexual assault, and these specifics are used in clinically diagnosing PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).
Trauma can however come in different forms. Major events (near death, abuse, etc) are often referred to by psychologists as “Big T’s”, however a series of repetitive minor events (or “little t’s”) over a lifetime can be as injurious as a large trauma. It’s like “dying from a thousand cuts”. It often shows up as anger, high need for control, anxiety or depression and when asked what triggers it, people find they cannot pinpoint it or they will say “it is something minor that happened and I know I shouldn’t be upset or anxious about”. This points to a high probability of having trauma stored unprocessed memories, images and sensations from past that is constantly being triggered.
EMDR is basically an orientation to therapy rather than a just technique that uses rapid eye movements or other forms of bilateral brain stimulation. It is based upon the adaptive information processing model1 which is consistent with our current neurobiological findings. In a nutshell:
- The way we make sense of any new experience is within the context of our existing memory network. For example, if a child is learning to read they will make sense of what is happening from the past memories of say, when a parent read to them.
- The way we will process information is to try and figure out what is useful and keep it, whilst discarding anything that is not useful. This may include disturbing experiences. For some kids, the experience of being teased by the other kids may be integrated with many events both positive and negative and is largely forgotten. However, for some the experience is so distressing that it becomes a foundation for inappropriate responses years later. This is when the fear, humiliation and shame was not fully processed and is stored with all the raw feelings, images and beliefs. Unfortunately, in the present and future, whenever something happens that smells, looks or sounds like being teased the whole package is activated causing an overreaction that the person finds hard to explain.
So, EMDR therapists are interested in understanding your out-of-proportion anger, anxiety, depression symptoms, they will want to identify relevant past experiences that have been stored in a dysfunctionally network of memories that are perpetuating these symptoms reactions.
The beauty about EMDR is that it is not talk therapy but a rapid zoning in of potential past experiences that may be relevant. This is usually done by getting you to briefly list some of the worst and best events in your life. The therapist will then work with you to look for common repetitive themes before agreeing appropriate potential target areas that can be used to evoke memories, images, sensations that need to be reprocessed and desensitised. People are often relieved to find out that the over-the-top reactions have a neurological basis that happens to a greater or lesser extent for most of us and that they aren’t abnormal.
As these dysfunctional memory packages are processed and become part of your normal adaptive memory stream, there are usually clearly observable changes that happen in terms of the reduction of your physical reactions, defensiveness, disturbing thoughts and feelings in response to triggers.
You feel less gazumped by your emotions and start responding more adaptively.
Almost spontaneously as the maladaptive patterns are processed, you are able to see the past from a wiser, more informed perspective. For example, ä belief of “I failed” become “I did the best I could, I was only five years old” or “I could not save her” becomes “I did everything I could to resuscitate her, she was dead by the time I arrived on the scene”.
You are better able to learn new skills to take the place of self-defeating habits. You may, for example, know you should not binge drink when you go to the restaurant with your “in-laws”, you have been told so many times by your kids and spouse but you feel helpless to stop. What you and they don’t realise is that you are being triggered setting a cascade of bad feelings and you feel compelled to reach for the bottle to self-medicate. Once the dysfunctional neural system is untangled and you are no longer automatically triggered, or you are more readily able to recognise what triggers you, you can consciously avoid or deal with triggers a new set of adaptive responses.
What is the goal of EMDR
The goal of EMDR is thus to address everyday problems that leave us feeling disempowered by maladaptive stored memories that are triggered, mostly unconsciously, and to engage our natural neural processes to transform these into adaptive stored memories.
How do I know I no longer am traumatized by an event?
How do you know a trauma is processed and a maladaptive stored memory has now become an adaptive stored memory? When you can describe what happened, including how you felt in the past and you do not actually experience, or experience very little of the emotions and physical sensations in the present. Essentially it just feels like another story of something that happened in your life. Not experiencing emotions or physically sensations is not the same as “numbing out”, this has a distinctly dead, cold feel to it.
What if I get EMDR wrong?
This is a very common fear (especially for perfectionists). A skilled therapist will gently guide you through the process and implement alternative means of bilateral stimulation (eye movements) if you are not making progress. You cannot get it wrong, qualified therapist spend a lot of time training to ensure you don’t get it wrong.
What happens during an EMDR session
1Shapiro, F., & Laliotis, D. (2010). EMDR and the Adaptive Information Processing Model: Integrative Treatment and Case Conceptualization. Clinical Social Work Journal, 39(2), 191–200. doi:10.1007/s10615-010-0300-7