What is EMDR?
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is an extensively researched, integrative form of psychotherapy that incorporates bilateral stimulation* to help address symptoms of trauma.
The theory behind EMDR (which is based on the Adaptive Information Processing Model) suggests that experiences have to be successfully processed in the brain in order for us to experience mental and physical wellness.
The trouble is, when we go through something that’s emotionally painful or disturbing, our body’s state of high arousal can cause disruptions to our brain's information processing system, meaning that certain memories will be inadequately processed. Insufficiently processed memories can become stuck in time, and anything in the present that reminds us of that experience (even if subconsciously) can trigger the thoughts, feelings, and beliefs that we had at the time of the incident itself. In other words, the past becomes present. Thus, it is only through accessing and reprocessing these painful memories that we can stop feeling triggered.
Think of EMDR as giving your brain a “software update” by finding old, unprocessed memories and updating them with new, more adaptive information so that you can feel triggered less often and live a life that’s more aligned with your current context, beliefs, and desires.
* Bilateral stimulation: stimulation of both sides of the body, which can occur via hearing a sound from one ear to the other, moving your eyes back and forth, and other methods.
The American Psychiatric Association, World Health Organization, and U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs are few of many organizations that recommend EMDR therapy for trauma, PTSD, and other disorders. In fact, more than 44 randomized controlled trials support the use of EMDR therapy with a wide range of trauma presentations and its effects have been shown to be superior to Prozac. Additionally, it has been proven that patients' symptoms continue to improve beyond termination of EMDR treatment, while many Prozac patients become symptomatic again.
While EMDR was originally used for the treatment of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), EMDR has also been used to successfully treat anxiety, grief, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), panic disorder, eating disorders, depression, and other disorders.
How it Works
While research on the long-term efficacy of EMDR is abundant, researchers are still trying to pinpoint how, exactly, it works. Some theories of why it works are listed below:
Rapid eye movements cause peoples’ parasympathetic nervous system to activate, creating a relaxation response that makes it easier to access unconscious memories, which can then be reprocessed.
When we think of a memory in a relaxed state, the memory is in a labile form, meaning it’s more “mouldable.” In this state, the memory is able to “take in” new information that can allow it to be transformed, reconsolidated, and stored in a neurologically different form.
Rapid eye movements produce a repetitive redirecting of attention that induces a neurobiological state that is similar to REM sleep. It is during REM sleep at night that the areas of your brain involved in making and/or retaining memories are stimulated, so EMDR allows us to stimulate these same areas while we are awake and conscious.
What Does an EMDR Session Look Like?
EMDR sessions look quite different than regular psychotherapy sessions. Firstly, you and your therapist will work together to identify which memories to target for reprocessing. Said differently, you'll determine which memories need to be “updated" so that you can live in more adaptive, healthier ways in the present.
Then, your therapist will guide you through bilateral stimulation. It is during this process that you're able to access memories and update them. Many patients report recalling memories that had been long forgotten, experiencing intense emotions, and/or having remarkable realizations during bilateral stimulation that had never previously occurred to them. This is all a normal and expected part of the process.
common goals & outcomes
Reduction in PTSD symptoms
Improved affect regulation
Reduction in the severity and frequency of triggers
Proven to provide long-lasting relief from symptoms