What Is EMDR?
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a form of therapy that helps clients heal from trauma and ease emotional pain. As a gentle method that processes trauma in the brain, EMDR allows clients to overcome psychological wounds and escape disruptive memories that keep them from living a healed, fulfilling life.
How Was EMDR Developed And Is It Considered An Effective Form Of Therapy?
EMDR was developed by Dr. Francine Shapiro in the late 1980s, after she discovered a strong correlation between bilateral stimulation—side-to-side eye movement—and feelings of distress. While certain eye movements triggered intense or traumatic memories, others provided relief or relaxation. Leveraging the idea that these eye movements could meaningfully desensitize or neutralize painful memories and experiences, Dr. Shapiro created EMDR.
The therapeutic community was quick to research and verify EMDR as an effective trauma treatment. In fact, some of the leading organizations in trauma studies, including the American Psychological Association (APA) and the Department of Veterans Affairs, consider EMDR as a gold standard of trauma counseling.
Yet, EMDR is not only helpful for symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD); it has been demonstrated to help clients struggling with an array of mental health issues. Today, therapists across the globe use EMDR to treat depression, anxiety, stress, anger, addiction, and psychiatric disorders. Because it is so effective at targeting core trauma, EMDR can meaningfully address symptoms that stem from any negative experience, memory, or association.
The Role Of Stored Trauma In EMDR Treatment
In order to understand how EMDR therapy works, we must look at the impact of trauma on the brain. Trauma is anything that happened to you that you didn’t expect or prepare for. While we typically consider trauma as an accident, attack, or some other sort of catastrophe, the truth is that trauma is much more common and widespread than those experiences alone.
Anytime your brain and body perceive a threat that is out of your control, you have the potential to be traumatized. As such, instances of abuse, bullying, and grief have the potential to inflict long-term effects on the individuals who experience them. In addition, everyday stressors—including conflict with a partner or high-pressure work situations—might bring stored trauma to the surface, often presenting as symptoms of anxiety, depression, and feelings of inadequacy.
When not processed correctly, trauma is stored in a way that causes new experiences and old memories to “bump” up against one another. Every time you encounter stress or trauma now, you may experience flashbacks and similar feelings to old traumas wherein your sense of safety was compromised—ultimately keeping you stuck in a loop of distress.
Alternatively, stored trauma often results in feelings of inadequacy or negative beliefs. Maybe you don’t necessarily relive old, painful memories when you feel under threat, but instead, you develop the belief that you’re unlovable or unworthy. These self-perceptions can also keep you stuck in traumatic patterns, preventing you from living the life you want.
What Do EMDR Therapy Sessions Look Like?
Using Dr. Shapiro’s foundational idea that eye movement strongly correlates with the ability to desensitize painful memories and experiences, EMDR is a gentle, body-based therapy that gives you a chance to clear and rewire the neural pathways blocked by trauma. An EMDR therapist uses visual cues to keep your eyes moving in such a way that you can effectively neutralize distressing memories.
Once your therapist gains an understanding of your background and presenting symptoms, they will walk you through each step of the Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing model. From there, you will create a target image of the memory or experience that you want to neutralize, repeating the bilateral stimulation pattern until you’re freed from the distress associated with the memory. You can then move on to a different memory or experience and repeat the phases of EMDR for each new target image.
Because EMDR stores trauma differently, therapy can help you find relief from symptoms rather quickly. After your target memory is neutralized, you can discuss with your therapist if there are other memories you’d like to reprocess using EMDR or if you want to incorporate talk therapy into ongoing sessions to further address your trauma. In comparison to other treatment methods, however, EMDR is time-limited and heals trauma at the body-based level. Not to mention, EMDR doesn’t require much verbal processing, so you aren’t expected to discuss your trauma at length in counseling.
My Approach As An EMDR Therapist
I have had the honor of helping my clients using EMDR for over two decades. When I first noticed the healing effects of this modality on some of my early clients whom I referred out for EMDR treatment, I enrolled to be certified as an EMDR therapist right away. And in fact, I was fortunate enough to study under Dr. Shapiro herself early on in my training.
EMDR Has Helped So Many Of My Clients And It Can Help You Too
My clients describe the eye movement and desensitization process as one that promotes healing, relaxation, and emotional cleansing on a deep level. Oftentimes, my clients can resolve psychological pain and trauma in just a few short EMDR sessions that would otherwise require weeks, months, or even years in talk therapy. I’ve seen firsthand how effective EMDR can be in helping clients overcome their struggles—from those dealing with the aftereffects of childhood abuse to those reeling from a recent pain or loss, and everything in between.
I know that transformation can occur in the span of just one session—I’ve seen it with my own clients. They come into sessions with fears, anxieties, and disturbing memories and leave with a sense of lightness and relief. Depending on what is being processed in therapy, they’ve enjoyed great improvements in their relationships, careers, and everyday life using EMDR. And because I place my clients at the center of this process, I ensure that EMDR treatment is collaborative and that they are in control of what happens and how quickly we move.
Deep And Lasting Healing Is Possible
You may not have had control over what happened to you, but you can change how you feel about it. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy is a chance to overcome your trauma and get your life back.
EMDR is an increasingly popular form of psychotherapy. Its primary focus began with the treatment of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), anxiety, and healing from trauma.