What is EMDR?
EMDR stands for “Eye-Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing” and is a way to re- work how stuck memories are stored by the brain. EMDR was founded by psychologist, Dr. Francine Shapiro 20 years ago. She was walking across a park and realized that if she moved her eyes back-and-forth while thinking about something disturbing, the intensity of the memory would dissipate. From that experience, Dr. Shapiro, along with several of her associates, developed the treatment modality of EMDR. It is now a well-researched and highly developed way to work with people who have experienced disturbing events in their lives and for whom the bad feelings, images, and memories don’t just go away.
What is happening in the brain that causes the problem?
As life is happening, the brain is constantly gathering, filtering, and storing information. Most of the information it receives gets ‘resolved’ and ‘integrated’ in the cerebral cortex (fluffy part of the brain) as it processes through the mind.
Many emotional experiences – shock, upset, or constant low-grade irritations – are processed differently. When these types of experiences hit the brain, the normal processing channels are shut down and the ‘limbic’ brain processing takes over. The body/mind goes into fight, flight, or freeze mode and the ‘survival’ mode has taken over. When this happens, the left (logical) brain shuts down and the information streaming through the senses is captured by the right (creative) brain with the worst of it (most traumatic) being stored in the lower regions of the brain
Trauma information – shock, upset, or highly charged disturbances – are processed differently. When life-threatening experiences hit the brain, the normal processing channels are shut down and ‘trauma processing’ takes over. You’re in ‘survival mode’.
Trauma information – shock, upset, or highly charged disturbances – are processed differently. When life-threatening experiences hit the brain, the normal processing channels are shut down and ‘trauma processing’ takes over. You’re in ‘survival mode’. When this happens, the left (logical) brain shuts down and the information streaming through the senses is captured by the right (creative) brain with the worst of it (most unpleasant) being stored in the ‘limbic’ (emotional/animal level) brain.
When this happens, much of what is currently being stored as memories will be experienced later, often as symptoms of sadness, anger, or fear. The problem is that even after the disturbance stops, the brain carries emotionally upsetting experiences long into the future – they’re basically ‘stuck’ memories that keep getting triggered, often for no apparent reason. (This is referred to in EMDR as the ‘past that lives in the present.’) Those memories may be disturbing images, unpleasant, angry, sad, or fearful emotions, anxious body sensations, and disparaging thoughts about the self. They are stored in the amygdala and hippocampus as hardened, fractured memories that are immediately accessible, available upon demand and are they are being sporadically ‘triggered’ unconsciously, whether they’re wanted or not.
Another thing is that memories are ‘associative’, which means that the good stuff groups together in the ‘adaptive’ neuro-pathways and the bad stuff clumps together in ‘maladaptive‘ neuro-pathways. That means that when bad memories of earlier experiences such as images, unpleasant emotions, and bad body feelings are triggered, it lets loose a whole stream of more of the same; you get caught in a downward spiral of bad feelings – fear, anger, and helplessness.
These ‘conditioned memory patterns’ are stuck in the limbic brain and while they are hard to get rid of they are easily triggered and they get replayed over and over. When they are triggered, there is usually little or no awareness of what is happening; that is, you may not even know where the bad feelings are coming from or what caused them originally, or is triggering them in the present.
‘Talking-about-experiences’ helps but all too often it doesn’t do enough. Prescription drugs such as anti-depressant or anti-anxiety medications can help you cope with symptoms even though they don’t – and are never intended to – solve the underlying problem. Cognitive-behavioral therapy helps but because it deals mainly with thinking at the surface level of awareness and because the source of the problem – stored emotions, body sensations, and negative beliefs about the self – is below the level of thought, it is not the complete answer.
Changing thinking doesn’t change the feelings which drive them at the lowest level.
Illegal drugs and alcohol can seem to help, but they merely masks symptoms, which slowly over time, tend to get worse and worse. Some form of self-denigration and self-destruction are all too often the outcome.
Using EMDR processing
With EMDR, we re-visit the disturbances and reawaken the images, emotions, body sensations, and negative feelings about the self. When we do that, we also use bilateral stimulation (eye-movements, sound, or tapping) to let the brain re-process the stored bad feelings, thoughts, and body sensations. When that happens, the brain has a way of re-encoding the trauma information and it becomes resolved and integrated; which means, you are desensitized from the bad feelings of the experience and thoughts are based on the ‘facts’ of the actual situation and not so much on the underlying negative feeling.
Is it like hypnosis, am I in a trance?
No. It is not like hypnosis. You are fully present with your experience while the brain does its reprocessing and unlike hypnosis, ‘trance’ suggestions are not being made.
Is EMDR like regular talk counseling?
EMDR therapy is different than regular talk counseling because while we do talk and we also do the EMDR processing. When we do the processing you can think of it like a procedure in which memories are allowed to be re-thought, re-stored, re-solved, and then, integrated.
How long does it take if I do EMDR?
That depends on the person and the extent of the trauma. Traumas that were long term or repeated several times can be revisited during the course of treatment, which can be from 2 to 5 years, especially if you are dealing with addictions, compulsively or serious life long issues – you can expect that it will take longer.
Single incident traumas, such as fear of flying, recovery from startle reponse from car accidents and the like – even war trauma, if there is no history of childhood disturbance, takes much less time.
The usual course of treatment goes as follows:
Sessions 1 to 3 are for history gathering, developing resources such as the ‘calm’ place exercise, wisdom, nurturing, protector and/or spiritual figures, and delineating ‘target’ events.
Sessions 3 to 5 are for EMDR processing.
Session 6 is used to reevaluate effectiveness and target quality.
Sessions 7 and above are used to clear out targets, re-education, and develop tools for emotional maturity.
At this point, you should have results that you can see and recognize and if you don’t then, that will need to be addressed. Depending on the severity of the issues you are dealing with, you may need to do many more sessions of EMDR but you will have the confidence of knowing you are making progress and it works.
How long does it take if I don’t do EMDR?
It is possible to live your entire life carrying emotional wounds and traumas from the past without ever getting resolution.