EMDR is a therapy that was developed in the late 1980’s in the United States by Francine Shapiro. It was first used with combat veterans and sexual assault survivors with PTSD, but has quickly come to be useful in eliminating all the symptoms associated with stress and trauma (from PTSD symptoms like flashbacks, panic attacks, intrusive thoughts, anxiety and phobias, through the continuum to depression, over-reactive anger, worrying, intense grief, disturbed sleep and so on; anything we’re referring to when we say we’re ‘stressed out’).
EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, but eye movements don’t necessarily have to be used. It’s a therapy where you think about something that bothers you (like a traumatic memory or issue) and the client follows the therapist's hand as they wave it front of your eyes, back and forth, creating a bi-lateral stimulation (BLS) for the brain. Other forms of BLS like alternating beeps or tapping can also be used to help the client process if eye movements are not possible. This “back and forth” or bilateral stimulation of the brain, while staying in the present in the therapists office, allows traumatic memories which sometimes get ‘stuck’ in the information-processing system of the brain, to complete the trauma processing that got stuck in the past where the person felt overwhelmed and unable to cope. These past experiences and memories, along with the beliefs, emotions and even the physical sensations that went with them, can all be reprocessed. When something bad happens, it first happens to the body, then the emotions kick in and then you start to ‘reprocess’ the event. In most situations, you think about it, sleep on it, get support, time passes etc. At the end of that processing, you can still remember the bad event, but it no longer bothers you. We can all think of bad things that have happened in our lives and although we remember them, we have peace with them. This is an example of the brain working the way it should. But sometimes, this reprocessing gets stuck, and the event is held in memory along with its emotional and physical content, and this is where EMDR comes in. It “desensitizes and reprocesses” the difficult memory or issue so that you have peace with it.
Researchers have not yet figured out what exactly is happening in the brain during EMDR; some theories suggest that it is similar to the process your brain is going through during the dream stage of sleep (REM sleep). EMDR might be a kind of accelerated, conscious version of REM sleep. It has been extensively studied, and validated by regulating and governmental bodies in the U.S., Canada and around the world.
During the EMDR session, you think about the issue or traumatic memory and your therapist does a number of ‘sets’ of BLS (bilateral stimulation). It’s useful to use the metaphor of a train journey; like you’re sitting in the carriage of a train (in the office of the therapist in present time) if upsetting feelings come up, it’s just like scenery outside the train. All you have to do is notice it and let it go by. Your brain is going to take you wherever it needs to go. You need to know that you may experience intense emotions, both during an EMDR session and also perhaps between sessions. This can be difficult and tiring emotional work and you may need to take really good care of yourself, during the time you’re doing the EMDR therapy.
If you find you get angry quickly, or freeze in situations where you wish you know you could be more assertive EMDR could be very helpful to you. Through the process, EMDR does not change who you are or cause you to forget the past, it cannot change what has happened, but as you process and ‘re-metabolize’ your past painful experiences, the EMDR process allows you to access your natural healing ability. From personal experience, it increases confidence and allows you to realize your own potential to heal, and cope and thrive.
Whether you have had a major trauma like a car accident, war trauma or a sexual assault, or a small ‘t’ trauma in your life, you may find counselling with a clinician trained in EMDR extremely helpful, and your healing process may progress more quickly than you could have imagined. Generally, an initial assessment is arranged where the therapist and client can meet to assess together what the needs and healing goals of the client are. The client has the opportunity to learn about the therapeutic tools available to them and ask questions about their possibilities and limitations. This is a good time for the client and therapist to mutually assess whether it feels there will be a good fit between them therapeutically, and for the therapist to answer any questions about what the client can expect from this particular therapeutic relationship. This initial session, as well as future counselling sessions can last either 60 or 90 minutes depending on the wishes of the client. Generally, if the client and therapist agree that EMDR will be beneficial to the client, the EMDR processing sessions are recommended to last 90 minutes in order to fully process as much of a particular trauma as possible. An individuals' extent and complexity of trauma will determine the length of therapy, but most people without complex PTSD find they are able to process their traumas in as few as 4-12 sessions.