What Is EMDR?
When I talk to clients about EMDR, I usually get one of two responses. They are either excited to try this treatment they have heard and read so much about or they have never heard of it at all. If I explain EMDR well, many clients can get their head around the science so to speak and see the value EMDR might play in their therapy. Not explained well, EMDR can seem alternative, new-agey or a bit too close to hypnotism for some people’s comfort. Why is EMDR so often a source of confusion for clients and even some health care practitioners?
EMDR, or Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing is a psychotherapeutic treatment that helps an individual access and process traumatic memories and other adverse life experiences to assist them in coming to an adaptive resolution and better overall functioning. That means some people will experience less anxiety, reduced stress, better sleep, reduced depressive symptoms, less emotional reactivity and things akin to this.
The reason some people view EMDR as an alternative therapy is that EMDR utilizes something called bilateral stimulation to help access, process and integrate memory. There are multiple ways an EMDR therapist might utilize bilateral stimulation but the most common way is to move your fingers in front of a client shifting their gaze back and forth in rapid progression while the client goes through a number of steps related to the memory they wish to target. These hand/eye movements are likely why some people view EMDR as similar to hypnotism when in fact the way it works is quite different.
Research points to EMDR’s bilateral movements working much the way the biological mechanisms involved in Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep work to integrate and store memory. The bilateral stimulation component of EMDR is thought to work through improved processing of emotional information and that the dual attention task (thinking about a trauma while you follow movement with your eyes) induces a mental state similar to REM sleep, which helps with reprocessing trauma.
Often “what fires together wires together” and in terms of trauma, quite often traumatic experiences will get “wired” to normal everyday occurrences in such a way that we can be constantly on guard, stressed, anxious, fearful or hyper vigilant"
There is the axiom with brain science that “what fires together wires together” and in terms of trauma, quite often traumatic experiences will get “wired” to normal everyday occurrences in such a way that we can be constantly on guard, stressed, anxious, fearful or hypervigilant, not because there is an immediate threat but because our brain, trying to protect us, is hyper alert for danger and disturbance. EMDR is among the gold standard treatments offered for people with a diagnosis of PTSD.
As individuals, however, we do not have to meet the diagnostic criteria for PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) in order to have our traumas and adverse experiences affect our day to day life, health and functioning. Many of us will have a difficult or traumatic experience, have that sense of stress and fear for a period and then overtime, process it naturally until the event or events are no longer distressing. Other individuals might get stuck in that fight, flight or freeze response and be unable to process and integrate the experience in such a way as to return to their normal, healthy functioning.
Why do some people get stuck? Probably a combination of factors including biology, natural temperament, early attachment and parenting, the severity or ongoing nature of the trauma and how it was initially dealt with or contained. Take for example the scenario of a small child watching an emotional, upsetting fight between their parents. As frightening and confusing as it might be, consider that afterward, both parents console the child, reassure the child that they are ok and were upset but working it out and then mostly refrain from that level of conflict, the child in question isn’t likely to hang on to this painful memory in a maladaptive way. But now consider the same scenario except after the fight, the parents do nothing to console the child frightened and crying in their room. In fact, the child witnesses both parents withdraw and experiences both fear and a lack of safety. Now imagine this happens cyclically for the better part of this child’s young life. In this instance, it is far more likely that the child will learn to be hyper vigilant to conflict around them and may experience things like severe anxiety or shutting down when having fairly normal conflict with people in their life.
EMDR works to help process and integrate difficult experiences, memories and negative, limiting beliefs so that they no longer impair one’s functioning. EMDR does not erase memories in any way but rather reintegrates them in a way where they are less intense or disturbing. Some clients explain the results like this, “before I would visualize the memory and it was like I was back there again, experiencing it, I could feel the fear in my body, the anxious symptoms, even intense anger. Now, when I recall the event, I still can picture it but it is more neutral, like watching a movie versus being in the movie and I do not have the physical or emotional response to it that I once did.”
I am an EMDR trained Huntington Beach therapist and offer this tool to help clients of all kinds identify and reprocess difficult memories, beliefs or experiences that might be holding them back. If you have questions about EMDR and if it might be appropriate for you, or would like to schedule a consultation/session with a Huntington Beach EMDR therapist, please contact me at 714-474-3794 (phone/text) or email@example.com