WHAT IS EMDR?
Contributed by Associate Dr. Nancy Bartlett:
Initially, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) was utilized and studied as a therapy for PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), but EMDR therapy has been found to be applicable for a wide range of psychological problems in children, adolescents, and adults, including:
Anxiety problems, such as:
phobias panic attacks performance anxiety generalized anxiety disorder obsessive-compulsive disorder
Problems with stress
Symptoms caused by disturbing life experiences
Aftermath of assaults, accidents, natural disasters
Body Image Disorders
EMDR is an approach to psychotherapy that has been practiced around the world for the past 25 years. It integrates many of the successful elements of a range of therapeutic approaches, yet there are aspects of EMDR that are unique. In particular, the therapist leads a client in a series of lateral (side to side) eye movements while the client simultaneously focuses on various aspects of a disturbing memory. The left – right eye movements in EMDR therapy are a form of “bilateral stimulation.” Other forms of bilateral stimulation used by EMDR therapists include alternating bilateral sound using headphones and alternating tactile simulation using a handheld device that vibrates in the client’s hands.
The therapeutic effects of bilateral stimulation were discovered by Francine Shapiro, Ph.D., who grasped their power in psychotherapy. Dr. Shapiro found—quite by accident—that emotional and behavioral symptoms resulting from disturbing experiences tend to resolve naturally when a person allows him/herself to recall various elements of a memory while engaging in bilateral stimulation such as lateral eye movements. Dr. Shapiro and her associates developed a number of procedures for coordinating this “dual awareness.” The procedures have been refined and validated through controlled research at several centers around the world. Precise and careful use of these procedures can lead to a safe processing of memories, such that the negative thoughts and emotions diminish or even disappear.
Many studies show that by using EMDR therapy, people can more rapidly experience the benefits of therapy that once took years to make a difference. EMDR therapy shows that the mind can heal from psychological trauma much as the body recovers from physical trauma. When you cut your hand, your body works to close the wound. If a foreign object or repeated injury irritates the wound, it festers and causes pain. Once the block is removed, healing resumes. EMDR therapy demonstrates that a similar sequence of events occurs with mental processes. The brain’s information processing system naturally moves toward mental health. If the system is blocked or imbalanced by the impact of a disturbing event, the emotional wound festers and can cause intense suffering. Once the block is removed, healing resumes. Using the detailed protocols and procedures learned in EMDR therapy training sessions, clinicians help clients activate their natural healing processes.
During the EMDR procedure, clients tend to “process” memories in a way that leads to a peaceful resolution. This often results in increased insight regarding both previously disturbing events and long held negative thoughts about the self. For example, an assault victim/survivor may come to realize that he was not to blame for what happened, that the event is really over, and, as a result he can regain a general sense of safety in his world; a person who has been abandoned by a partner may come to realize that she is loveable and is no longer overwhelmed by negative feelings about herself or participating in unproductive behaviors stemming from those feelings; a person fearful of driving due to a terrible car accident in the past may end the session feeling safe to drive again.
EMDR therapy is an eight-phase treatment. Eye movements (or other bilateral stimulation) are mainly used during one phase. After the clinician has determined which memory to target first, he asks the client to hold different aspects of that event or thought in mind and to use his eyes to track the therapist’s hand as it moves back and forth across the client’s field of vision. As this happens, for reasons believed by a Harvard researcher to be connected with the same biological mechanisms involved in Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep, internal associations arise and the clients begin to process the memory and disturbing feelings. In successful EMDR therapy, the meaning of painful events is transformed on an emotional level. For instance, an abuse survivor shifts from feeling horror and self-disgust to holding the firm belief that, “I survived it and I am strong.” A client with public-speaking anxiety may shift from the self-belief, “I’m incompetent” to “I am capable.”
Unlike talk therapy, the insights clients gain in EMDR therapy result not so much from clinician interpretation, but from the client’s own accelerated intellectual and emotional processes. The net effect is that clients conclude EMDR therapy feeling empowered by the very experiences that once debased them. Their wounds have not just closed, they have transformed. As a natural outcome of the EMDR process, clients’ thoughts, feelings and behavior are all robust indicators of emotional health and resolution—all without speaking in detail or doing homework used in other therapies.
In her next blog article Dr. Bartlett will describe the treatment process of EMDR.