What is EMDR?
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a form of therapy that was originally developed to treat trauma and traumatic memories. Since its development, various studies have examined the benefits of EMDR. EMDR has also been found to treat other conditions as well. For a list of research driven information please go to the EMDRIA Research Library. Or this is a good review of EMDR research: Efficacy of Eye-Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing for Patients with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: A Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials treatment areas.
For some people the idea of EMDR can be a little intimidating, so I have highlighted a few questions that people may have and a reference sheet below that explains EMDR in a little more depth.
What is EMDR?
EMDR was developed by Francine Shapiro, PhD. in 1987 and has since evolved and been empirically validated many times over through research. EMDR is a form of therapy which uses "bilateral stimulation" to resolve trauma and other clinical issues. Bilateral stimulation is activating alternating sides of the body and brain. Some therapists provide tapping with their hands, light bars, head phones that alternate sounds, or alternating vibrations in the client's hand.
The foundation of EMDR is built on the idea that traumatic memories are stored in our brains in a sort of loop. The memory or feelings are never really "digested." People get stuck in thinking cycles, and struggle to break out of them. These loops usually show up in the form of, emotions, thoughts, images or distorted beliefs about ourselves. When this emotional stuff kicks in it is hard to sort things out. An individual might logically understand that they are not responsible for a traumatic event, but when they think of the event, all their thoughts and feelings say that they are responsible, they feel responsible. EMDR interrupts this process and aligns the individuals thoughts and feelings so they are clear and more in line with reality. "I shouldn't have been there, I deserved it", is very different from, "I was at the wrong place at the wrong time and I didn't deserve that, it wasn't my fault."
The goal is that the individual will be less emotionally distressed about the events, or issues, while also resolving the distorted belief and accompanying feelings. Examples of distorted beliefs are: I am responsible /it was my fault, I am defective, I am a bad person, I am a failure, I am not safe, I cant protect myself, or I am weak. Everyone is different and depending on the situation, an individual can have more than one distorted belief.
What does a session look like?
When beginning EMDR the individual be introduced to the equipment - which is a light bar, tappers or beeping noises in headphones. The light bar is a bar of LED lights that move from side to side, which they watch with your eyes, while tappers alternate vibrations in their hands.
The process is as follows: * This is a highly condensed version of a processing session.
1) Assessment: Prior to a session beginning the individual will be asked to identify a "Target" (a memory/ event or thought if it is bothersome). From there a further assessment of thoughts, feelings, images and somatic states will be identified. When the clinician and the client feel that the they are ready, "processing" will begin.
2) Processing: The client will be asked to hold the Target (identified memory, event or state) in their mind and bilateral stimulation will begin, usually at a faster pace. The lights on the light bar will go back and forth or tappers will alternate vibrations in the individuals hands or headphones will alternate dings. As bilateral stimulation begins most people watch memories, thoughts and feelings go by. Once processing begins, a client's brain takes over and they just go with it! Their brains do all the work, there is no right or wrong way to do EMDR. People do not go into a trance, they will be present the entire time and can stop the session any time they like.
3) The session closes when the memory or emotions are no longer distressing to the person and a positive belief about themselves is instilled.
Most sessions are 1-1.5 hours long and it usually takes 6-12 sessions to complete a target.
It should also be noted that the therapist is present the entire time to assist the client through this experience. The therapist is there to help the client if things become too uncomfortable or distressing. This is the reason that EMDR should be done with a trained professional.
Is it hypnosis?
No, its very different from hypnosis. Hypnosis focuses on providing interventions or guidance as well as suggestion. EMDR does not guide people. Therapists do not tell clients what to think, what to do with their thoughts etc. You will not "get sleepy...." Instead it is the person's inner-experiences that guide themselves to resolution. There are moments when therapists guide people in EMDR, but that is very intermittent and most of the time, people come to positive conclusions on their own. I should note that there are therapists who do hypnosis and EMDR together, which is kind of interesting!
What can you expect an outcome to be after being treated by EMDR?
Everyone is different. EMDR is beneficial in many different ways from processing different memories to calming, or providing a stronger sense of self. The ultimate goal of EMDR is to help people feel more at ease in their own bodies, be able to reflect back on their memories without feeling distressed or upset. I can never make any guarantees about any form of therapy and I think most therapists would agree with that, but I have seen many people feel better after the use of EMDR.
Will my memories be erased?
No! I don't want my memories erased and would not want that for anyone else! Okay, I lied, I could do without a few. But no, EMDR moves memories from overwhelming to something more like, "wow that happened to me and I feel like I can still live my life." Instead of, "wow that happened to me and I cant turn my thoughts and feelings off!"
Is EMDR legit?
Yes, it is legit. I don't buy into nonsense and false hopes for people, when I look into a form of therapy I make sure that there is research behind it and look for other people who have experience in it. For research on EMDR, you can look it up online for yourself in different scholarly journals, articles or read a few books on EMDR. One that is specifically geared toward clients and a good read is, Getting Past Your Past: Take Control of Your Life with Self-Help Techniques from EMDR Therapy.
Is EMDR for everyone?
No, EMDR is not for everyone, but it is pretty rare that I see someone who is unable to do EMDR. As a clinician I would assess what the best option for treatment would be for each of my clients. For some people, jumping right into an emotionally distressing event would be too much for them. In that case, it might be best to start with calming and regulation skills rather than processing an event. Individuals with a history of seizures cannot be treated through EMDR.