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Frequently Asked Questions About EMDR Therapy


What does "EMDR" stand for and what is it?
EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing and is an evidence-based therapy that can help resolve painful life patterns by changing the way negative memories are stored in the brain. EMDR has a history of treatment and extensive research going back to the 1980's, is used by over 70,000 practicioners worldwide, and works typically much faster and more deeply than traditional talk therapy. To date, EMDR therapy has helped millions of people of all ages relieve many types of psychological stress.

The name can be misleading, or even intimidating, as it suggests that eye movements are necessary although they are not often used anymore (more on this in a moment). And what is meant by "desensitization" anyway? The researcher who discovered this in the late 1980's, Dr. Francine Shapiro, has been quoted as saying that she wishes the approach had simply been named "reprocessing therapy", as this is essentially what is occuring when people heal using this therapy. Based on what we now know about our brain's ability to change, grow and heal itself (often referred to as "neuro plasticity"), it seems that EMDR sets up the brain to be able to rewire, or reprocess, itself with updated, healthy beliefs.

This is accomplished by determining which past experiences are still lingering in a person's brain and body that contain unprocessed emotions (say, fear & guilt), body memory (muscle tension, panic response, racing heartbeat), and false negative belief ("I'm in danger", "It's my fault", etc.). Once we have a list of those experiences, or "targets", we help the client connect to those targeted memory networks by guiding them into a relaxed, mindful state (relaxed, not hypnotized). Once they have accessed the troublesome memory network we then help the client use guided imagery, free-association, and the healing power of their own mind to "process" the unprocessed memory. Our minds and bodies move toward healing and will begin doing this primarily on their own, with the aid of the therapist to guide the process as needed.

This approach sounds a little strange and this is the first I'm hearing of it. Is EMDR a legitimate mental health practice?
Absolutely. EMDR is a science-based psychotherapy, long accepted by leading mental health organizations throughout the world for the treatment of a variety of symptoms and conditions and practiced by nearly 70,000 therapists around the world for the past 25 years. EMDR has been endorsed by the American Psychiatric Association, the World Health Organization, the Department of Veterans Affairs, and the Department of Defense. Organizations like the EMDR Institute and the EMDR International Association (EMDRIA) are organizations for researchers and practitioners who are dedicated to the highest standards of excellence and integrity in EMDR and are working to advance the education, practice, and science of EMDR.

When I research EMDR on the Internet it appears this therapy is typically used for PTSD. What if I don't have PTSD?
Most people doing EMDR therapy do not have PTSD diagnoses. Though originally developed for treatment of PTSD, over 25 years of research, usage, and adaptation by tens of thousands of EMDR therapists have led to its application with a large number of issues, including depression, anxiety, phobias, unhealthy relationship patterns, abandonment issues, low self-esteem, inhibited performance, grief, insomnia, panic, procrastination, etc. I am able to effectively utilize this approach with nearly all of my clients, most of whom do not qualify as having post-traumatic stress. Remember that trauma actually has a very broad definition and can be caused by anything from a critical parent, to a bad breakup, to an embarrassing moment as a child.

Why this type of treatment instead of the talk therapy I've done in the past?
Talking uses your left-brain functions that are based on logic and reason. We can know logically that, say, something that occured in the past was long ago, however our right-brain processes and our bodies are where our traumas are held. Remnants of past negative experiences that continue to cause us distress in the present are held in our nervous systems, not in our left-brain logic. I can't tell you how many times I have heard statements like "I know this shouldn't still bother me...but it does", or "I know I don't need to feel this way anymore...but I still do." It is your left brain that is making the first part of that statement and your right brain & body following the "but", which will win out over your left-brain logic most times. We can't just talk our way into lasting change when it comes to emotions, body, and beliefs...we have to get to where this problematic material is actually held within our system, which must be by way of emotions and body awareness, not spoken words.

You mention accessing emotions for this but I'm not very aware of or in touch with my emotional experience. Is that a problem?
No, and it is very common for people in today's thought-focused, hurried world to be up in their heads through much of their lives. It is definitely necessary for you to be able to notice body sensations and emotional experience while in session, but learning to do so is part of the process and there are many ways of helping folks begin to connect with their bodies and emotions so that EMDR can work. This is partly where the mindfulness piece comes in, with clients learning how to allow for their thoughts, feelings, and body sensations to communicate with each other, which is how our systems are meant to function.

Is this some form of hypnotism?
No, you are simply guided into a relaxed, almost meditative state where you are fully aware of your surroundings and are completely present the entire time. In fact, being fully present is a necessary part of how working through your past occurs, while also not retraumatizing you as you connect with the memory networks of difficult past experiences. We're essentially helping you put one foot in the past experience while keeping the other in the present, working to connect the two so that the knowledge of your current status ("I got through it", "There's nothing wrong with me", "It wasn't my fault", etc) can positively impact the past negative experience we're helping you connect to, literally merging these two memory networks in a healthy way. This dual awareness couldn't occur if you were put into some hypnotised or trance-like state. Instead we are just starting sessions by helping you relax and notice your present experience (body sensations, emotions, thoughts, etc) so that you can incorporate your body and emotions into the process.

How long does EMDR therapy typically last?
It is nearly impossible to predict how long someone will need therapy, given any therapeutic approach. Still, it is very common for people to report benefits from body-focused therapies like EMDR that they never received from traditional talk therapy, even after years of approaching their problems in that way, and in much less time. All I can really say is that therapeutic approaches like EMDR, along with Mindfulness, are what we believe to be the most efficient, effective, and lasting ways we know to help people make the changes for which they are seeking therapy.

Do you use EMDR with the couples you work with, or is this only used for individual therapy?
We don't typically incorporate the EMDR approach into couple's work, however my knowledge and training in EMDR absolutely informs and aids my work with couples in various ways. I have also done individual EMDR work with the partner present, which can be a profound experience for the observing partner to further empathize, understand, and connect with their husband/wife/boyfriend/girlfriend as both are present to witness past pain being transformed and healed. I am also well connected with the EMDR community in the Seattle area and can provide referrals for some wonderful EMDR therapists nearby who can do the individual EMDR work of a member of a couple that I am currently working with.

What if I don't want to use the EMDR approach to therapy?
That would be absolutely fine, and around 20% of the individuals I work with are not using this form of therapy and are still getting helped by me. As I mentioned earlier, traditional talk therapy works with some people, on some issues, some of the time. And I have had much success over the years helping those who want or need to address issues through traditional cognitive-behavioral talk therapy, which is something all therapists are formally trained and experienced in. EMDR is an optional way of working on the issues people bring into therapy, it isn't a requirement, and though I believe it is likely to be the most effective way I can help you and is therefore primarily how I work with people, the manner in which we work together is always an agreed upon collaboration with my client.

So what would be the next step in moving forward with therapy?
If you have any questions or would like to schedule an appointment, please feel free to call or email using my contact information or you can just sign up for an available session in my online scheduler.