What Is EMDR Therapy?
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing therapy, or EMDR, is an efficient and often rapid method of reducing stress and reactivity related to a traumatic experience or adverse event. It is a targeted form of triage, treatment, and rehabilitation that enables clients to overcome emotional wounds of the past while inoculating themselves against further injury.
In the hands of a certified therapist, EMDR is the perfect treatment option for acute stress disorder, trauma, panic, PTSD, generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), phobias, and problems with addiction or alcohol use. EMDR can also provide relief to people who are struggling to reconcile seemingly small yet impactful moments that may have been overlooked or possibly invalidated.
EMDR got its start in 1987 while Dr. Francine Shapiro, a psychology graduate student at the time, was taking a walk through a park to calm her mind. As she looked back and forth about her surroundings, she noticed that the negative thoughts and feelings that had been dogging her only moments before had suddenly vanished. It wasn’t that she was merely getting her mind off of things. What Dr. Shapiro had discovered was a unique way of using rapid eye movements to artificially stimulate the brain and soothe the parts of it that are panicked and distressed. For years, this approach and its effectiveness were researched and quantified by universities, professionals, and institutions across the world. Now, decades later, the International Society for Traumatic Studies, the US Department of Defense, Veterans Affairs, and the World Health Organization all consider EMDR therapy to be one of the most effective ways of treating trauma and PTSD.
Why And How Does EMDR Therapy Work?
Everyone will eventually run into some sort of adverse experience either as a child or an adult. It’s just an unfortunate part of life. When a person feels like their physical or emotional safety is threatened, their natural defense mechanisms kick in to help them fight, run, or freeze. And while those natural instincts can have a protective effect, they can also impair the brain’s ability to process and integrate the information of that experience. As a result, it becomes stuck in the mind as a backdrop of fear and apprehension for everyday life. It corrupts self-confidence, robs us of opportunities for growth, and embeds negative beliefs about ourselves that distort our identity. And over time, it forces us to miss out on opportunities that could lead to recovery and new ways of experiencing life.
Although culturally, we often shy away from discussing thoughts and emotions because it makes us feel vulnerable, trauma is like a foreign material that gets trapped beneath the skin. The body knows it’s not supposed to be there, and so it tries to heal on its own, but the wound grows more sensitive day-by-day. It’s not until we are able to remove that object that our body can truly heal. Fortunately, the same holds true for emotional wounds. With the right environment and technique, we can precisely and incrementally draw out the parts of us that are stuck in the past.
At its core, EMDR works by stimulating the adaptive information processing system (the brain’s natural way of processing, learning from, and storing experiences). To accomplish that, we’ll use guided conversation and a range of multi-sensory techniques based on the same principles behind Dr. Shapiro’s serendipitous walk through the park. Typically, over just a few sessions, you can adapt your brain to new information, reprocess painful memories, and reframe your experiences into something that no longer presents a threat.
Unlike other effective approaches to trauma and PTSD treatment, EMDR doesn’t involve homework, extended exposure to powerful memories, or the need to share every detail of your experience. Rather, our sessions are designed to break down the source of your pain into smaller, more manageable pieces. Like looking at a landscape through a window, EMDR limits your vulnerability so that you can work on reducing symptoms, reprocessing the memory, and moving forward. And because EMDR creates a container of safety that guards you against overwhelm, it has fewer dropouts, which contributes to a higher success rate than other treatment options.
EMDR Therapy Can Benefit A Wide Range Of Individuals
Anyone dealing with anxiety, abuse, addiction, assault, or loss may benefit from EMDR as it is a relatively brief and less invasive way of finding sustainable relief. It can also treat equally significant but less psychologically intense experiences, such as losing a career, being humiliated by peers, or having a higher health risk to COVID-19. But EMDR can be particularly beneficial for military service members, healthcare workers, cops, and other first responders who are exposed to a constant stream of traumatic stimuli. In many ways, EMDR is a flexible, one-size-fits-most approach to effectively tackling some of the deepest, most profound wounds a human being can endure.
Unfortunately, many people try to bury their pain—and some even get quite good at it. But ignoring the past only works for a while before each drop of stress in the bucket starts to overflow into relationships, work-life, and your physical health. The truth is, in the long run, you eventually have to come to terms with your past. And often that means facing it.
Internally that can feel intimidating, but working with an EMDR therapist can help you explore your experience in a way that isn’t overwhelming or re-traumatizing. In that sense, EMDR can change your whole world by clarifying the origins of your pain and helping you to understand the truth of your role in the narrative. In a brief time, you can gain a broader perspective of your situation, desensitize yourself to emotional triggers, and embrace a more authentic and positive evaluation of yourself.
Many people who have been exposed to a traumatic experience or event naturally feel like everything is out of control and that nothing can be done. But just the simple fact that you are on this page right now demonstrates that you have already overcome the biggest obstacle to healing by exploring your options. In your mind, you have already made the commitment to change. All you need to do is reach out. I am certain that within the first few sessions you will experience some form of significant relief and a new perspective that will help you see that change is possible.
I’ve known hundreds of individuals with life-altering emotional trauma who have taken control of their experience and their future through EMDR therapy. In potentially a short time, you can heal old wounds, change negative beliefs about yourself, and acknowledge the past without having to relive it indefinitely.