Eye Movement Desensitization & Reprocessing
Have you been to therapy before and felt it was a waste of time?
EMDR is unlike any therapy you've encountered before. In as little as one session, a year's worth of regular talk therapy progress can be made. There are multiple EMDR protocols that work with various diagnoses and presenting concerns, including singular incident trauma, complex trauma (multiple traumatic events that have happened), early childhood trauma and neglect (including preverbal incidents), and even anticipatory events (preparing for a job interview or stressful event).
What is EMDR? Where did it come from?
EMDR stands for Eye Move Desensitization and Reprocessing. It was founded by the late Francine Shapiro, by a complete chance encounter. One day, she was walking in a park while she pondered over something upsetting. As her eyes darted between the trees, she noticed that her thoughts were no longer distressful. From there, she worked with scores of volunteers to test the efficacy of eye movements in de-sensitizing trauma. To their delight, not only did they find that eye movements successfully neutralized distress, but the movements also reprocessed events so that they were stored in the brain with positive cognitions about the self and the world instead of negative or scary ones. Nightmares, flashbacks, intrusive thoughts, aggression, images, and other disturbing sensory information proved to be alleviated with this method.
Subsequent research has now shown that eye movements are only one form of bilateral stimulation. Touch and sound can also be used to stimulate each hemisphere of the brain, thereby jump starting the adaptive processing that takes place during EMDR.
How does EMDR work?
EMDR works directly with memories, whether conscious or not, that are trapped in the amygdala. The amygdala is the unconscious part of our brain that remembers fear and terror, and employs our autonomic nervous system to engage in the fight, flight, freeze response. The amygdala is fully formed in utero and is constantly assessing our environment for threats, which could range from seeing an assailant with a weapon, or feeling excluded from a group. Because there is no language in the amygdala, people are unaware of how their present day symptoms are rooted in this part of the brain. This usually takes the form of denying the existence of an overwhelming or traumatic experience, minimizing the impact of such an experience, or justifying why it was okay that whatever happened happened. Language and cognitive processing are unable to reach this part of the brain, instead, we work with physical sensations in the body.
With the use of bilateral stimulation, memories stuck in the amygdala jolt loose and work their way upward toward the hippocampus. The hippocampus provides context and time space. Take for instance the veteran who ducks for cover during Fourth of July fireworks. Their amygdala has held onto the sound of a soul piercing boom and has associated it with gun fire. Despite knowing in their consciousness that they're no longer in combat, the survival part of the brain never got the memo. Should this information be processed by the hippocampus, then the whole brain will feel safe with what once was a threatening sound. This process also holds true in the cases of subtle experiences of overwhelm, such as letting go of resentments, overcoming people pleasing, or eliminating intrusive thoughts at bedtime.
As the bilateral stimulation continues, the once distressing body memory will become adaptively stored in the prefrontal cortex. This part of our brain is responsible for conscious thought process, perspective taking, future orientation, sound decision making, emotional regulation, and analysis. EMDR overrides the impulse of the prefrontal cortex to deny, minimize, or justify an unbalance in the nervous system and facilitates integration between the unconscious and the conscious.
In this method, we are operating counter to traditional cognitive therapy approaches, which attempt to use the prefrontal cortex to reconcile what's stored in the amygdala. Instead, the dissociative barrier that exists between these parts of our brains is bypassed by utilizing our natural "bottom-up" processing mechanisms.
Think of a time where you were embarrassed by something to the point it made your whole body have a physical reaction. EMDR desensitizes, meaning the physical reaction would neutralize so that when you think about that embarrassing moment, you no longer experience the uncomfortable physical sensation. It also reprocesses. If you previously thought about yourself “I am shameful” when imagining that moment, after an EMDR session you would believe something more positive, such as, “I am okay the way I am.” These affirmations don't feel coerced, instead, they feel true to 100% of the self. EMDR can accomplish in one session what years of tradition talk therapy aims to achieve.
What does EMDR work for?
Research supports the use of EMDR for PTSD, phobias, anxiety, panic, anger management, grief, performance anxiety, low self-esteem, depression, childhood trauma and abuse, physical and sexual abuse, natural disaster, witness to violence, victim of violence, injury, traumatic loss, rape, fire, robbery, preverbal and nonverbal traumas, and dissociation.
Who supports EMDR?
International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies – 2009 assigned "EMDR as an evidenced-based level A treatment for PTSD in adults”
The American Psychiatric Association – 2004
The Department of Veterans Affairs and Defense – 2010
SAMHSA – 2011
The World Health Organization – 2013
National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (UK) – 2005 advised "EMDR therapy for treating trauma”
Australian Centre for Posttraumatic Mental Health – 2007
The Dutch National Steering Committee Guidelines Mental Health and Care – 2003