Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing or EMDR--could we have come up with a wackier name for an evidence-based, highly effective therapy treatment for trauma or upsetting life events? I doubt it! Don't be thrown off by the name, though--there's a plethora of information and research out there on the effectiveness of EMDR, and I'll link to some more great resources below. For now, let's talk a little more about who can benefit from EMDR and how it works.
who can benefit from emdr?
- folks who have experienced a traumatic event or ongoing trauma, such as
- a frightening car accident that you can't seem to get over
- a history of physical, emotional or sexual abuse or a sexual assault
- a natural disaster
- military deployment or service
- a PTSD diagnosis
- can be helpful for some people with phobias or panic disorder
- may be helpful for personality disorders, pain disorders and many more
my thoughts on emdr
Many times in my life I have heard, for one reason or another, the lament of "if only kids/men/women/I came with an instruction manual," usually in the context of some confusing human situation or experience that could be around any corner in life. Well, as I sit here at my desk to write a little something about EMDR, I realize that if we did have an instruction manual for humans, EMDR would be in it, probably somewhere with the sections of memory consolidation, emotional processing and sleeping/dreaming.
The way I see it (and what all the latest research seems to indicate) is that EMDR therapy uses an existing system that is already in you at birth. I imagine it as being hard wired or pre-installed upon arrival in this world. Along with so many hard wired things about being human, it just seems to happen automatically. This particular system is set to function when we sleep. Nobody had to teach you how to sleep or how to dream. You just do it.
sleep & emdr
Over the centuries there have been theories about the mysterious experience we call sleep and dreaming and its purpose, but what recent research indicates is that sleep is part of our natural process of memory consolidation and experience processing. This is a fancy way of saying that sleep helps attach new memories to old memories in a way that makes it all fit together and make sense in a bigger-picture-sort-of-way. This is why studying all night and not getting enough sleep can actually be worse for your subsequent grade than studying less and getting your rest. Everything you learned finds the right place in your mind and makes sense in a more integrated way after you sleep.
So, what is this magic that happens in the night, and what does it have to do with EMDR?
Well, when you dream, which happens at regular intervals all night long, your mind is processing memories and thoughts. Researchers have known for quite some time that while this is happening you do something really interesting with your eyes--you move them rapidly back and forth. This is called Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep. This is not new news, but what is new is that the researchers who created EMDR use this pre-existing process of memory consolidation and processing to purposely process trauma memories that, for whatever reason, have not processed fully on their own. The eye movements are of particular importance to this process because our eyes, like the rest of our body, are attached to our brain, left brain and right brain respectively, so by moving the eyes back and forth, the brain gets activated back and forth, left brain, right brain, left brain, right brain and so on. This actually activates all the wonderful mental resources we already have in our brains to connect with whatever we are dreaming about or focusing on at the time, thus helping us see it in a bigger picture. Further, this left-right stimulation of the brain/body is also naturally soothing. Just think of how we naturally pace when we’re anxious or troubled (left foot, right foot) or rock our children to sleep or soothe them. These actions are simply naturally soothing.
what does emdr actually look like?
In classic EMDR, the therapist uses eye movements to access your natural desensitization (soothing) and reprocessing (memory consolidation and experience processing) system while purposefully having the client focus on a particular target memory or experience that needs healing. Sometimes, instead of eye movements, the therapist will use other body stimulus to activate the brain like tapping on the body or listening to tones to name a few. What typically results is a natural feeling process of experiencing the memory, soothing the mind and body and changing perspective of the memory as it takes its place with the bigger picture of one’s experiences, history and knowledge. In the end, the memory is there but it is now held differently by the person.
This is a very simplified and brief explanation of EMDR, but sometimes that is exactly what's needed. However, if this has only wet your appetite for a more in-depth, scientific explanation, I recommend that you check out the EMDR International Association (EMDRIA) website for their definition, which is the generally recognized authority. Follow the links for a direct connection to EMDRIA and/or their definition of EMDR.
More questions? Or, ready to get started?
Either way, great! I'll be happy to answer any questions you have and chat with you about how EMDR might be helpful. You can get to know me a bit better here, or go ahead and contact me below.
I look forward to talking with you!
Rachel's phone: 916-616-7298
Rachel's email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Or, contact Rachel here: