What is EMDR?
Well, the acronym is short for what is quite a mouthful; it stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. That’s why we use the acronym. It is an accelerated and adaptive model of therapy that can sometimes resolve very severe problems in a few sessions.
There have been more than 20 controlled studies that found EMDR to decrease or eliminate symptoms related to trauma and anxiety. Recently, the Veterans Administration has endorsed EMDR as the therapy of choice for soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. The VA does not make such recommendations unless the treatment is heavily researched and shows significant positive results.
Is EMDR a new therapy?
No, EMDR was discovered in 1987 by Francine Shapiro, a California psychologist, who was told the traumatic news that she had cancer. She was extremely upset by this news. The story goes that she literally went for a walk in a park after hearing this news and for some unknown reason, she began moving her eyes back and forth. After she did this for some minutes, she noticed that she was no longer upset about having cancer. Thankfully, she recovered and further developed EMDR into one of the most powerful therapies in the world today. That’s how it all began.
Now, over 2,000,000 people have been treated with EMDR from around the world and thousands of mental health professionals are trained in EMDR. This is a potent therapeutic tool that has provided incredible results for many problems. Clinicians who use EMDR point to four key distinctions between EMDR and traditional forms of therapy. “Effectiveness, Efficiency, Ease of Benefit, and Enduring Permanent Results.” EMDR is not just thinking yourself into acting and feeling better, but a process of actually stimulating the client’s own brain and central nervous system to resolve distressing issues and thus function at a much higher capacity. It does not simply treat the client; it heals and often transforms them.
EMDR has also been used for performance enhancement. Performance enhancement is often needed in many varied arenas including art, business, sales, athletics, relationships, and simply functioning better in all aspects of everyday life. EMDR removes blocks that interfere with optimal performance. We all carry “baggage,” some negative blocking belief about ourselves; these beliefs are created by negative life experiences that usually interfere in our lives; EMDR removes this interference permanently. If for example, a client has a belief that “I am not good enough” a skilled EMDR therapist can cause a permanent shift in the person’s psychological make-up to “I am good enough.” This is not experienced simply as words, but the person feels this change in every cell of their being. They become good enough and they never retreat to the familiar negative belief again. It is dismantled. EMDR creates a permanent correction causing the person’s view of the world and the view of themselves to be dramatically changed forever.
What is an EMDR session like?
The therapist is like a guide on this inner journey. During the processing of EMDR there is very little talking. The trained therapist will prepare you for the session. The actual healing process occurs in the client’s own head. It moves at the speed of thought because there is no talking during stimulation, so a lot of ground is covered and reconciled in one session. Once the problem is identified the client is asked to picture the troubling memory with the negative core belief while bilateral stimulation is applied. Bilateral stimulation is administered in one of three ways: visual, tactile, or auditory. The client may be asked to simply watch the therapist’s hand as it is passed back and forth in front of his/her eyes. Some clinician’s use the more high tech approaches using a light bar with lights that move back and forth for the client to track visually. Tactile stimulation is done by using small vibrating paddles that gently vibrate alternately while the client holds them in their hands. Auditory stimulation is applied using headphones that can be worn while alternating beeps occur in the client’s ears. These choices can be done using one option or any combination of these modes of stimulation. The stimulation activates the brain into action and begins to fully processing the problem that has been “stuck” in parts of the brain where it can create problems for the client. The results are often profound and permanent.
How does it work?
There are many theories but no one is exactly sure why or how it works. Fortunately, with the great success of this treatment, more neurologists and neuroscientists are getting involved in EMDR research using PET scans and MRI’s to determine exactly what is going on with the brain in a typical EMDR session.
One theory is that it is related to REM sleep, which is the stage of sleep when dreams occur. During this stage of sleep, our eyes move back and forth. It is thought that while this is happening, the information about the day is being processed, and is then sent to the parts of the brain that stores the information properly. Often extremely disturbing events that we experience do not get processed normally, but instead get stuck in the emotional part of our brain called the limbic system. It is this dysfunctional storage, which occurs when the brain is overwhelmed by an event. This improper storage allows the events to be triggered causing us to relive the distressing experience repeatedly. EMDR moves these troubling events out of the limbic system and into long-term memory where it belongs. Thus, never being triggered again.
The mysterious way in which these events wreak havoc on our life is usually unknown to us. There can be a powerful emotional feeling to a past event, but the past event is not part of the present experience. It seems to come out of nowhere. A simple way to understand this is: If for example, someone is making an emotional mountain, out of the proverbial mole hill, they could benefit from EMDR. If an emotional response is “over the top,” then the response has little to do with today, but is about the past and only triggered by a minor event in the present. EMDR seeks and destroys these connections causing the client to feel more at peace in their own skin because these connection are destroyed so today is just about today.
When is EMDR used?
Research shows that it is very useful for the treatment of trauma, but clinicians have reported that it is also effective in treating personality disorders, panic and anxiety attacks, depression, grief and loss, intrusive memories, phobias, eating disorders, performance anxiety, test anxiety, stress, and addiction. More recently, it has been shown to reduce impulsivity and can help with ADHD. I have found it heals low self esteem and dismantles negative core beliefs that we all struggle with in our life. No one gets through life without some negative belief or thought about themselves. These often limit the quality of our life, regrettably we often have no idea this is going on.
A woman enters my office and says, “Doc, I married three abusive alcoholics in 15 years. I do not know what is wrong with me, but I do not want to marry another.” She continued, “I went to a church social where there was no alcohol. I met an enchanting man; we talked and danced the night away. He was heavenly.” She said, “He asked me out the next weekend for dinner and I of course accepted.” She asked, “Guess how dinner went.”
I played along, “Good, I suppose.”
She shouted, “Doc, he was sloppy drunk before the appetizers!”
She continued with sadness and desperation in her voice questioning me, “How can I go to a church dance for adult singles, where there is not a drop of alcohol in the entire place, a room with over fifty single men ready to meet women, and who do I pick? I go right to the alcoholic in the room and practically fall in love with him.”
She questions in desperation, “Why do I do this? Can you please help me?
Why does she do this?”
Her father was an alcoholic. She learned that she did not matter. Alcohol mattered in her childhood she didn’t.” Dad went to the bar to drink instead of attending her soccer game, Christmas Play, or her awards ceremony. No, she learned how to not matter as a child. She found three other men to treat her the same way. Why? She found men to take her to the land of what was familiar—the land of not mattering.
After EMDR she began to feel like she mattered. She met a good man, who adored her, cared for her, and loved her. This was not easy for her. She did not know how to be treated with kindness and caring. She was like a child learning how to live life from a healthy perspective.
This is very common in my work. I share this brief story to show that the core belief that I’m talking about are not just words; the belief is a short hand way that describes a devastating life long struggle you cannot talk yourself out of no matter how hard you try. A struggle that often begins before we learn to talk. EMDR is the only way I have found that transforms and heals these wounds. Wounds that perpetuate themselves through the lifespan. We as humans are attracted to what is familiar.