This post is part of a series on Featured Topics, topics that are commonly asked about and addressed in therapy. Click here for previous posts.
EMDR therapy is gaining widespread recognition as a safe, gentle, and effective trauma therapy. It's also extremely versatile, and being used not only for traumatic experiences, but also unpleasant memories, depression, eating disorders, dissociation, anxiety, and more! It is very well-researched, with excellent results. This brief article gives you a snapshot of this robust therapy.
What Is EMDR?
EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. When an overwhelming experience occurs and the brain does not have the time or resources to process it in a healthy and adaptive manner, that memory can get stored in a part of the brain that makes it feel like it’s happening again and again, and it becomes stuck. It's sort of like when a computer file becomes corrupted; it takes up a lot of space on the computer’s hard drive, and it’s difficult to access the information needed. Re-formatting that file enables it to be stored properly and it again becomes useful. Similarly, EMDR “re-formats” memories so that they are stored well and are useful.
How Does It Work?
EMDR is thought to work similarly to REM sleep, the brain’s natural way of processing memory and integrating the information. Bilateral stimulation is delivered to the client in the form of side-to-side eye movements (mimicking REM sleep), gentle tactile vibrations alternating from left to right from egg-shaped handheld devices, and/or sounds played alternatingly in each ear. This alternating stimulation is thought to allow the right and left hemispheres of the brain to communicate in a more efficient way, utilizing the mind’s natural form of healing and processing. The client is fully awake, conscious, and in control throughout the EMDR process; there is no hypnosis, loss of consciousness or being “put under” involved.
What Does It Looks Like?
Safety comes first - the client is given grounding exercises and participates in other exercises to enhance feelings of confidence and calmness to help regulate emotion both in and out of session. Memories that are appropriate for reprocessing are identified, and the client pairs the memory with a visual image, positive and negative beliefs about the self, and notices body sensations and emotions that come up. The bilateral stimulation is delivered while the client thinks of these things and just notices where his or her brain goes; the mind naturally goes to the most important root part of the memory and begins to heal itself, much as the skin naturally heals a cut under the right conditions.
Who Is a Good Candidate?
Anyone who is dedicated to the process. There are very few things that would disqualify someone from receiving EMDR therapy. EMDR is a highly versatile and robust therapy and can work with a wide variety of problems. It's even safe to use with children!
Bottom Line: EMDR may be helpful for a wide variety of people regardless of problem. Click here to learn more!
Megan Bonynge is a trauma therapist intern in Orange County working under supervision. She specializes in EMDR therapy, PTSD, dissociation, and eating disorders. She is trained in early EMDR intervention for very recent traumas. Megan also teaches part time at Cal State Fullerton.