The Magic of EMDR

The Discovery of EMDR

Some years ago a psychologist and psychotherapist named Francine Shapiro was on a walk in the woods mulling over some intrusive thoughts and upsetting memories, as she walked and thought about her life she noticed the intensity of her emotional response to these thoughts decreasing with each step. While it’s well known that walking is beneficial for your mental health regarding anxiety and depression, Francine was making another connection during this hike between her eye movements and footsteps that lead her to create a well researched trauma therapy called eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, or, EMDR.

What is EMDR?

Eye-movement desensitization and reprocessing is a therapy that uses bilateral stimulation to activate the right and left sides of the brain which allows for greater access to memories and emotions. Bilateral stimulation comes a few different ways- the original technique is having the therapist move their fingers right to left at a comfortable speed in front of the client’s open eyes while they track the fingers with their eyes; newer techniques have clients tapping their bodies alternating on the right and left side of their legs or their chest. There are even technology products that have been developed to assist with bilateral stimulation like light bars and buzzers or tappers. EMDR can look different for everyone depending on eye comfort, sensory sensitivities, and other factors that determine what issues are being treated and what goals the client has for therapy. The process involves eight phases which include history taking and target planning, resourcing, processing of specific targets, installation of a positive cognition to replace the internalized negative view of self, mental scan of the body, and reevaluation after each processing session. Resourcing is my favorite phase of EMDR because it gives the client and therapist time to work through which type of bilateral stimulation is most comfortable for them and it teaches the client several different relaxation exercises that can be repeated on their own between sessions to increase their effect. The goal of resourcing is to allow the client’s window of tolerance to widen, this means that it takes a longer period of time or a more intense disturbance to cause a person to experience symptoms. Some therapists may suggest for a client with a lot of trauma to practice their resources between sessions to maintain their increased window of tolerance. This phase is great for use with most clients, even those who aren’t doing an EMDR treatment plan since they are simply relaxation techniques. The processing phase is the phase which involves several rounds of bilateral stimulation to elicit memories and emotions connected to those memories. It is common during the processing phase to experience what I call an “up and out” movement of emotion- this looks like noticing tension somewhere lower in your body that feels as if it’s moving up and out of your body until the physical sensation has dissipated. This movement of emotion is why EMDR can be such an effective therapy for trauma survivors, it allows those physical symptoms of trauma such as anxiety, muscle tension, stored anger, and hypervigilance to reduce over time.  The reprocessing piece of EMDR is what happens after a number of processing sessions and time spent on resource implementation. One of the best parts of this treatment is how the way our memories generalize in our brains can be used to our advantage. This can be done by targeting a specific memory and allowing those feelings to be desensitized and reprocessed- over time, other memories that made you feel the same emotions or physical sensations may become desensitized without processing thanks to generalization. This may sound impossible, but sometimes it truly seems like EMDR is magic.

What can EMDR be used to treat?

While EMDR was created, researched, and developed as a trauma specific therapy, it has been found to be effective in treating major depressive disorder, anxiety, and eating disorders. The reason it works well for a variety of disorders is it’s primary tenet- reworking previously stored memories to reduce their impact on our daily lives. EMDR works off of the adaptive information processing (AIP) model which posits that the past remains in the present if we don’t face it and even horrors from our past can be adapted within our brains to turn a negative cognitive schema into a positive or neutral experience. Desensitization is a part of other therapies used for OCD and anxiety disorders like in-vivo therapy and exposure therapy, the function of desensitization is to reduce the intensity of emotions and body sensations related to those emotions. Although this treatment can be versatile, it is important to remember that EMDR is only evidence-based if it is used to treat trauma, treating other disorders with EMDR is similar to using a medication off label for an ailment it could be helpful for.

Is EMDR right for me?

All of this information is likely a lot to take in, so if you like the idea of EMDR but aren’t sure if it will work for you, here are a few things to consider-
  • If you have experienced trauma that has lead to a diagnosis of acute or chronic PTSD, and you meet your chosen therapist’s requirements for stability for processing you are likely a great candidate and could benefit from this therapy.
  • Maybe you’ve tried several therapy modalities to work on your anxiety, it couldn’t hurt to try something new especially if your EMDR therapist emphasizes resourcing before processing.
  • If you’ve experienced a recent trauma and are struggling with physical symptoms of a trauma or stress related disorder there is a separate protocol that some therapists are trained with called RTEP which allows the traumatic experience to be broken down into sections for more in depth processing.

Who is it not recommended for?

EMDR is not recommended for clients who are pregnant or attempting to become pregnant due to the unknown effects of the treatment on a fetus. It is also not advised for clients with seizure disorders, especially when the therapist is using eye tracking for bilateral stimulation as this could induce seizure activity in the brain. Active substance users should avoid this treatment due to the unknown interactions between brain altering substances, eye movement, and increased distress during treatment.  There are other situations in which EMDR may not work, but most therapists know their comfort zone within their practice and will determine upon evaluation whether or not it’s a good fit. If you would like to learn more about EMDR, discuss it with your therapist or conduct your own research, but make sure your sources are credible. Happy Healing!   - By Rachael Mielitz, LLPC, NCC