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EMDR FAQs

Trauma/Abuse EMDR Therapy


Sometimes talk therapy and mindfulness skills aren't enough.

Some of us with childhood or adult trauma need other forms of therapy, and one evidence-based approach is EMDR. EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing and is a 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.

The Theoretical Basis for EMDR
Dr. Shapiro developed the Accelerated Information Processing (AIP) model to describe and predict EMDR's effect. She hypothesized that humans have an inherent information processing system that generally processes the multiple elements of experiences to an adaptive state where learning takes place. She conceptualized memory as being stored in linked networks that are organized around the earliest related event and its associated affect. Memory networks are understood to contain related thoughts, images, emotions, and sensations. The AIP model hypothesizes that if the information related to a distressing or traumatic experience is not fully processed, the initial perceptions, emotions, and distorted thoughts will be stored as they were experienced at the time of the event.

Shapiro argued that such unprocessed experiences become the basis of current dysfunctional reactions and are the cause of many mental disorders. She proposed that EMDR successfully alleviates mental disorders by processing the components of the distressing memory. These effects are thought to occur when the targeted memory is linked with other more adaptive information. For example, understanding on a body and emotion level (we often already know this cognitively) that the past event is truly in the past and not still happening to us now, or that the meaning we ascribed at the time to the event ("I'm in danger", "There's something wrong with me", "I'll always be alone") was inaccurate then, or at least does not apply now. When this occurs, learning takes place, and the experience is stored with appropriate emotions that are then able to guide the person in the future.

What Is This About Eye Movements?
Have you ever wondered why we sleep? We sleep primarily to let our brains process the information we have taken in throughout our day. The conversations we've had, the experiences we encountered, the thoughts and feelings that occured for us - we go to sleep each night with around 16 hours of data that we've accumulated throughout our waking experience. Well our brains need time at night to sort through all that data, to organize it, to keep what they want or need as memory and perspective and sense of ourselves & the world, and then to discard the rest. We can then wake up the next day and start all over. This is why, if we were to stay awake for a few days without any sleep we would actually become temporarily psychotic, because our brain wouldn't have had a chance to do what it needed to do with all that raw data from our waking experience.

Have you ever wondered why we have that stage of sleep we call "R.E.M." sleep? We all know what R.E.M. stands for - Rapid Eye Movement - but most of us have likely never stopped to think about what in the world that's about. The R.E.M. stage of sleep is when our eyes move back and forth very quickly, which is actually performing a great deal of psychological functions but it's enough for us to just think of the eye movements as stimulating both hemispheres of our brains, the left and right halves. This rapid stimulation of our brains (which us EMDR therapists sometimes refer to as "bilateral stimulation") is nature's way of enhancing, speeding up, and deepening the processing that our brain is doing during sleep. What we know, from nearly 30 years of research and use of the eye movements with literally millions of people, is that we can emulate the process of R.E.M. sleep while awake.

In 1989, when EMDR research began, therapists waved their hands back and forth and had clients follow the movements, thereby generating client's eye movements. But many years of research later, and likely many shoulder surgeries for those poor pioneering EMDR therapists, we now know that instead of using eye movements we can just use sound or touch to achieve the bilateral stimulation, which is what most of us EMDR practitioners use these days. So the client simply holds two little plastic things that vibrate alternately in each hand, augmenting your brain and body's processing of past troublesome experience. So the "eye movement" in EMDR is likely going to instead just be the vibrating pulsers you hold in your hands as essentially a background activity for your brain as your system processes the unprocessed memories.

More questions about EMDR? Take a look at these FAQs or give me a call and we can talk about it.

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