What is EMDR anyway?
Eye movement reprocessing and desensitization (EMDR) is a therapy technique created by Dr. Francine Shapiro that can help people heal significantly from trauma. EMDR therapy incorporates sets of bilateral stimulation (BLS) which involves the back and forth movement of the eyes, alternating auditory sounds or tapping.
Many people mistake EMDR for hypnosis because of the back and forth eye movements. EMDR absolutely is not hypnosis. Although hypnosis can be incredibly helpful for some people, it's important to make the distinction between the two. During an EMDR session the person is very aware of what is happening and is completely in control of his or her actions. No suggestions are made that are meant to influence behavior.
We do not understand entirely how EMDR works in the body.
What we do know is that when someone experiences a traumatic event that all of the sights, sounds, emotions, body sensations, and different information from the time of the event get stored in the brain. The brain is actually trying to protect us by doing so. It figures, hey if I store this information for the future I can keep myself safe and I’ll know to avoid these dangerous things. Sometimes our brains are a little too good at trying to keep up safe though.
How is trauma stored?
To better understand how trauma is stored, I'll provide a more concrete example. Let’s pretend someone gets into a nasty car accident and there was a red balloon floating through the air at the same time. The brain notices the red balloon and stores that information.
Now the red balloon is not necessarily something that is dangerous or threatening, but because that information was filed away at the same time something terrifying was happening, it now becomes a trigger for certain people.
Not everyone's brain will automatically categorize the red balloon as dangerous, but this will happen for some people for a variety of reasons. Factors that can affect a person's perception of a traumatic event depend on how the person was raised, age, central nervous system sensitivity, prior traumas, and a person's natural level of resiliency. If you geek out on brain research like I do then check out this link for more information.
For the people whose brain linked the balloon with danger, whenever their brain sees a red balloon in the present, it sends a danger alarm to the body and activates its survival instincts.
The person doesn’t need protection from a red balloon, so the response doesn’t make much sense.
We might say that the trauma has become stuck in the body. As a result, we need to disconnect the link the brain made at the time of traumatic event which is: red balloon = danger. We want the link to look more like this: red balloon = red balloon, safe.
Another way to think about trauma is like a broken bone.
Imagine that you've broken a bone in your body. Some people may heal just fine and never have another issue. On the other hand, in some people the bone may not heal properly and cause continued discomfort and pain. Traumatic events are very similar. One event may cause intense emotional suffering in one person and not in another. It all depends on how he or she heals.
How can EMDR help?
Let’s continue to think about the broken bone metaphor. EMDR essentially helps us to go back in and "break" and then “reset” the bone that has healed improperly.
Through the use of EMDR, new adaptive information is provided to the brain that was not present at the time of the traumatic event. It is believed that the introduction of this new "healthy" information allows the memory to become unstuck and process properly in the body.
For example, a person who was abused as a child may still have a belief that the abuse was his or her fault. When that person was a child, he or she did not and could not understand that he or she was not responsible for the actions of an adult. That belief, “It’s my fault” essentially becomes stuck and can cause a variety of problems for the person in his or her adult life.
Now that the person is an adult, he or she can access what we call “adaptive” information. This adaptive information would be the understanding that a child is not responsible for the actions of an adult and that it was not the child’s fault.
Through the use of bilateral stimulation (BLS) the person is able to reprocess the memory with this new information available.
It’s almost like going back in a time capsule and helping the brain make the necessary repairs it wasn’t able to make at the time of the trauma.
The new adaptive information allows the brain to process the memory in a healthy way and allows for feelings of resolution within the body.
It's important to remember that the memory doesn't necessarily disappear, but the intense and distressing emotions that surround it are significantly reduced or, quite often, entirely alleviated.
What's the research show?
EMDR is incredibly effective in treating a variety of mental health issues (depression, anxiety, eating disorders, performance issues, addictions, attachment traumas, PTSD, self-injury). The most research has been done on the use of EMDR with Post-traumatic stress disorder.
One study showed that 100% of the single-trauma victims and 77% of multiple trauma victims no longer were diagnosed with PTSD after only six 50-minute sessions.
What's more is that seven of 10 studies reported EMDR therapy to be more rapid and/or more effective than trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy.
Although I haven't personally conducted formal research . . .yet, I've seen EMDR work incredibly well in my own practice. It’s definitely not the only way to work with trauma, but the results are quite impressive. I've even seen it eliminate PTSD-like symptoms in a 6-month old baby. I know! Incredible right?
Can EMDR help me or my child?
Is EMDR right for you? Only you can make that decision. It's not going to be the right treatment for everybody of course, but I encourage you to do some research on it and seriously consider it as an option. For more information check out EMDR Institute, Inc.
or EMDR International Association.
If you're interested in EMDR for resolving your own trauma reach out to me! I'm happy to help :)
Tarah Galloway, LCPC, ATR is a professional counselor, art therapist, and mom. She specializes in helping people reclaim their lives and their children's lives after experiencing significant life stressors, also known as trauma. Tarah focuses on whole body healing, neuropsychology, and practical applications that help people confidently pursue their goals and awaken their inner power.
Image courtesy of lekkyjustdoitat at FreeDigitalPhotos.net