It’s frustrating when you’ve been to therapy for many years and no amount of talking has truly helped you recover from traumatic events. While I practice CBT, DBT and other forms of traditional talk therapy, I have shifted my practice to focus heavily on EMDR to help process difficult memories that seem “stuck”. EMDR therapy, a.k.a. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, is highly effective in working through single traumatic events as well as long-term distress (e.g. childhood trauma, bullying, anxiety, depression). In fact, the EMDR International Association boasts that single-event traumatic experiences can be resolved within 3 sessions.
Why can’t I get over it on my own?
During traumatic experiences, your brain is focused solely on survival. It’s not paying attention to nuances. Instead, it is trying to gather just enough information so that it can make a fast decision on how to keep you safe. During this quick processing, your brain stores traumatic information poorly. Rather than processing the event and filing it away as completed and safe, your compromised mind does not communicate properly with the parts of your brain in charge of the flight/fright/freeze responses. Unfortunately, these traumatic memories then get stored with the same emotional duress and physical sensations that took place during the event. Therefore, years later, when we become triggered, we experience the same emotions and physical states that we did during the time of the traumatic event. Because these memories are poorly stored in our brain, it also struggles to make connections with new or positive experiences.
EMDR therapy believes that your brain is able to recover from traumatic experiences; however, there are certain blocks that prevent this natural healing from taking place. Consider how your body works to heal a cut on your hand. You don’t have to address the wound; your body will naturally try to heal this wound on its own irrespective of your interventions. However, if there is repeated irritations to the wound, it becomes difficult for the cut to heal quickly or effectively. Your brain works in similar ways to your body. It is capable of healing from trauma; but, if there are repeated afflictions (e.g. negative beliefs stemming from that memory), it makes it harder for your brain to recover. Once these afflictions are addressed, your recovery can take place.
How does it work?
I have to preface that EMDR feels incredibly bizarre at first! If you are used to traditional talk therapy, EMDR will feel a tad surreal. During therapy, your EMDR therapist will ask you to review the traumatic memory in a very unique way. You will be asked to focus on one specific moment within your traumatic memory, and rate the level of distress you experience when you think of this moment. Your therapist will then support you in understanding the negative beliefs you now hold because of this memory. Afterwards, your therapist will ask you to think about the image while also having you pay attention to an object that is moving back and forth (a.k.a. bilateral stimulation). Bilateral stimulation is the distinctive factor in EMDR. It involves getting both your verbal and non-verbal (left and right-hemispheres of your brain) to be activated while addressing a traumatic memory. Bilateral stimulation can be done in various ways like back and forth eye movement, audio cues, or hand-held pulsers.
What does EMDR feel like?
During the time that the bilateral stimulation happens, your mind will wander (and your clinician will encourage this!). Your mind will start to create all sorts of connections stemming from that original memory. You may think of other memories, beliefs, images, emotions, etc. With bilateral stimulation, your brain is making connections between that original memory and it’s impact on other events in your life. Therefore, it’s creating new neural networks in your brain, shifting your original beliefs about that memory. Depending on where your mind wanders, your EMDR therapist will guide you in between sets of bilateral stimulate to choose the next aspect of the memory to focus on, thereby helping the processing move forward.
Why does it work?
There are several theories as to why the bilateral stimulation is so effective in processing traumatic memories. Some believe that it is due to your working memory being taxed because you’re focusing on the traumatic memory and the bilateral stimulation at the same time. Others have argued that it is because the bilateral stimulation is similar to rapid eye movement during sleep, which is a primary time when you process and store information in your brain.
“EMDR Therapy changes maladaptive neural networks by connecting the traumatic memory with new information. The distressing thoughts and emotions are blended with new positive thoughts and emotions; embodied awareness allows frozen sensations in the body to resolve through healing movements.”– Arielle Schwartz
How else is EMDR different from other therapies?
If the thought of using bilateral stimulation hasn’t made this therapy look unique enough, there are a few other details that may help.
- EMDR does not require a lot of talking about the difficult memory. Truly, the work is happening in your mind, and your brain is working hard to remove all of the afflicted connections from the original memory. You do not have to explain lengthy details to your therapist, if you are not comfortable.
- Your therapist will be fairly silent during bilateral stimulation. This builds on the above point that the work is happening internally when you process a traumatic memory in combination with bilateral stimulation.
- There is a lot of specific ‘resourcing’ exercises used to support your nervous system prior to starting trauma processing. Everyone feels vulnerable when it comes to addressing traumatic memories. To do the work safely, a lot of time can be spent to ensure that you feel safe and confident prior to starting the work.
- There are no homework assigned. Don’t worry, if you love homework in therapy, we can figure something out! However, the primary focus of the work happens in session.
- There are no arguments or time spent convincing you about changing your beliefs, thoughts or emotions. Instead, we acknowledge the negative belief that this traumatic memory has fostered, and we let the bilateral stimulation do the work. There is no time spent on thought records, or trying to look at the evidence for or against beliefs.
After learning all of this information about EMDR, what questions do you have about this counselling approach? I’m happy to chat about EMDR, and how it may best serve your needs. Please reach out for a free consult to see if EMDR may be a good fit for you.