What is EMDR Therapy?

By: Alicia Wilder, MA LMSW

What is EMDR Therapy?

EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. At it’s core it is an integrative therapy that uses the power of eye movement to assist people in healing negative experiences and beliefs that have not been processed successfully in the past. EMDR began as a chance observation by  founder, Francine Sharpio as one day walking through the park she observed that by moving her eyes back and forth quickly she was able to change the way she felt about certain problems and lessen the “charge” they had over her. Since that chance discovery in 1987,  it has grown into an evidence-based psychotherapy to treat multiple issues including  post traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression, panic disorder, grief and loss, and somatic symptoms.

How does it work?

Well, the truth is we don’t know the exact answer to that, but the dominant theory is that EMDR works in same way things are normally processed in REM sleep. During REM sleep eyes also move back and forth and help to process memories and make needed connections in the brain. According to Getting Past Your Past,, Shapiro explains, “That’s why you can go to be worried about something and wake up with a better solution.” Overall, however, the book also admits, “it’s a complex process, many elements are involved and research is ongoing.” Bessel van der Kolk corroborates this idea in his book The Body Keeps Score by stating, “While we don't know precisely how EMDR works, the same is true for Prozac. Prozac has an effect on serotonin, but whether its levels go up or down, and in which brain cells, and why this makes people feel less afraid is still unclear.” The truth is there is still much to be learned about the human brain and why the eye movement used in EMDR is effective. What we do know is that evidence has clearly shown improved outcomes with this intervention.

EMDR therapy is also rooted in the Adaptive information processing model (AIP). According to this theory much of a person’s current troubles are due to incomplete or dysfunctional processing of traumatic or disturbing events and/or adverse life experiences--and unless you grew up in a bubble you likely have some of these! We all cope with them in the best way we know how, but sometimes these experiences impair our ability to integrate them in an adaptive manner. This often leads to some of our unwanted beliefs and and behaviors that can be difficult to shake. Through accessing these traumatic or difficult memories and providing back and forth eye movement a person is able appropriately process these experiences and function in a  healthier way.

What can you expect in EMDR therapy?

An EMDR therapist has been trained in the eight phases of treatment included in the EMDR protocol. The beginning phases of the protocol include a more thorough history of the client and presenting problems that map out the symptoms or behaviors that brought you to therapy. Next a negative belief is selected to match the associated memory and the eye movements are used to process that memory. Eye movement can be done by following the therapist’s hands or a light that moves side to side. Once the memory and negative belief are processed fully  a positive belief is focused on and instilled using the eye movements as well. There is also special attention to what is happening in the body, making sure a client is able to tolerate the emotions that often come up, and ensuring the client leaves feeling calm and in control. Progress is then evaluated, and once the memory is no longer distressing the cycle can begin again for any additional memories that are in need of processing.

How will I know if EMDR can help me?

I am passionate about this intervention and continue to be encouraged by the transformative power it has had in the lives of many of my clients. It is truly a gift to use this process as a tool to help others sort through difficult experiences that have led others to feeling “stuck” for so long.

EMDR is very effective if you have any difficult memories, experienced any type of trauma, have difficult behaviors or symptoms you don’t feel you are able to manage, or are just looking for a new approach.  I encourage you to make an appointment and we can work together to identify the negative experiences that may be contributing to your current difficulties, and use the power of eye movement to help you process these in a healthy way. This will enable you to feel more in control of your symptoms, beliefs, behaviors, and ultimately give you the freedom to live in best version of you!