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  • Indira Caro, Registered Psychologist

EMDR Can Help — Here's How

What is EMDR?

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a psychotherapeutic approach that helps clients process traumatic memories. More people are learning about EMDR lately, thanks to its increased popularity and appearance in the media.

When something threatens a person's sense of safety, the whole body goes into a survival stress response. The threat may come from a single event like an accident, illness or act of violence or it may be chronic and less visible, like years spent feeling rejected, abused, bullied or neglected at home or in school.

During the stress response, the thinking part of the brain shuts down. The fight-flight-freeze response center takes over. It is a normal response to signs of danger, with increased amounts of stress hormones flooding the body to prepare us for action.

EMDR was originally developed by Francine Shapiro, and it is a complete therapy model. It is an empirically supported model that includes working with thoughts, body sensations, and emotions to eliminate the distress triggered by the unprocessed memories. Sometimes these experiences appear as anxiety, depression, excessive worry, etc. EMDR seeks to go to the root of the issues that are causing the symptoms and provide long lasting healing. EMDR is divided into eight phases:

  1. Client History and Treatment Planning

  2. Preparation

  3. Assessment

  4. Desensitization

  5. Installation

  6. Body Scan

  7. Closure

  8. Reevaluation

EMDR therapy is based on the idea that our minds have a natural capacity to process what happens to us healthily and adaptively. However, excessively stressful events can overwhelm the brain's natural processing system and blocked it. When the information associated to an specific stressful experience is not properly processed, the memory might be stored essentially as it was originally encoded, along with any distorted thoughts, sensations, or emotions experienced when it happened. These unprocessed memories make the brain easily triggered and reactive when facing thoughts, body sensations, or emotions related to the unprocessed memory. That is, the brain relives the unprocessed event.

How EMDR Works?

During EMDR, the brain is stimulated in ways that direct it to process raw memories. Thus, EMDR helps people process the thoughts, sensations, and emorions and go back to an adaptive and healthy state of being. Therefore, an experience that may have triggered a negative response may no longer do it or do it to a lesser extent after EMDR therapy. Thus, difficult experiences will likely become less upsetting.

EMDR appears to have similar effects to rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. The mind and body integrate information during sleep. Much like in REM, during EMDR, your brain will go wherever it needs to go to heal. EMDR uses bilateral stimulation of the brain to assist clients process difficult memories. This bilateral stimulation can be achieved by using a light bar. Clients track a light left and right with their eyes, holding hand buzzers that send gentle oscillating vibrations to the hands or auditory stimulation using headphones. The modality of bilateral stimulation will be agreed upon between the client and therapist.

What to Expect During EMDR therapy?

The initial phases (1-3) of EMDR look like regular psychotherapy. The therapist will be identifying unprocessed memories, developing regulation skills with the client.

During phase 3, the therapist will work on the identified unprocessed memories while providing the brain's bilateral stimulation to tap into its natural healing capacity. Once stimulation stops, the client reports what it is noticing. This phase is different from traditional psychotherapy. The client is discouraged from engaging in talk therapy that might disrupt the natural process. The goal is simply to observe changes in thoughts, body sensations, and/or emotions.

What Kind of Problems Can EMDR Treat?

EMDR is an established and well-researched therapy to help overcome many mental health issues like anxiety, depression, poor job performance, trauma, PTSD, and low self-esteem. EMDR has also been effective in treating pain disorders, panic attacks, performance anxiety, stress management, eating disorders, addictions, and complicated grief among others.

If you have any additional questions about EMDR and how it can help you, contact me for a free 20 min consultation.

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