EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing–it is a specialized form of therapy meant to help people heal from trauma. It is so called because it involves the use of guided eye movements to help people get in touch with and process traumatic experiences in a way that ultimately helps to desensitize them to the negative thoughts, feelings, and sensations that stem from those experiences.
How does EMDR work?
In order to understand how EMDR works, it is useful to know a little about how traumatic experiences create enduring distress in the brain. Our brain processes typical everyday experiences that are not laden with threat very deliberately with the ‘thinking’ part of the brain (i.e. our prefrontal cortex). This deliberate processing allows us to organize those experiences in a way that makes intellectual sense, feels emotionally safe, and such that those experiences are subsequently recalled within the timeline and narrative of our life (i.e when we later recall those memories we have a clear sense, both intellectually and emotionally, that they happened in the past).
Traumatic experiences are processed and stored differently. Trauma occurs when there is a strong threat in our environment that we must respond quickly to in order to protect ourselves. Because evolution taught humans that speed is of the essence in surviving threats, information about the environment during a threatening experience bypasses our thinking brain and gets fast-tracked to an older part of our brain (i.e. the amygdala) that houses our fight-or-flight response. This allows us to respond fast, but this speed comes at the cost of not being able to organize and integrate those experiences in the way we normally would with non-traumatizing events. Consequently, those traumatic experiences end up ‘fragmented’ in our minds–they don’t feel like a coherent, safe part of our narrative, that clearly happened in the past. Instead they can lurk unconsciously and get reactivated by anything that reminds us of part of the trauma. When reactivated, we may feel like we are reliving the trauma in the present moment. Even if we are not consciously reliving the traumatic memory, our fight-or-flight system can still get reactivated by triggers such that we may feel the surge of anxiety and the instinctual urge to fight, fly, or freeze again when triggered.
The goal of EMDR is to process these memories through specific protocols such that they can be experienced as safely in the past when accessed. With this, they no longer trigger our fight-or-flight system and thus no longer bring up intense negative emotions and physiological sensations. This is what is meant by the terms ‘desensitization and reprocessing’.
How is EMDR different from more traditional psychotherapy?
EMDR differs from traditional psychotherapy in several ways. It follows a protocol that begins with teaching people skills to soothe themselves when they are emotionally activated. This helps them to re-establish a sense of safety in the present should they be triggered. From there, specific traumatic memories are identified to be addressed. As these experiences are processed, I will have a person’s eyes follow my fingers back and forth. This creates a ‘dual attention’, where part of the person’s attention is focused on the traumatic experience and part is focused on following my fingers. This dual attention helps the person keep one foot in the present with me, and one foot in the past with the experience, preventing the processing from being as emotionally activating as it would otherwise be were they fully in the past.
In addition to the inclusion of eye movements, processing in EMDR differs from traditional psychotherapy in that it includes far less explaining, and talking in general. Rather than trying to interpret the traumatic experiences together, I am primarily trying to help your mind follow where the processing takes you. The idea is that your mind naturally wants to go to the most emotionally important parts of the experience so that the trauma can be healed. By staying in touch with those emotionally important aspects it can access an innate capacity to integrate and heal those experiences, just as your body has an innate capacity to heal from certain wounds and illnesses.
Many studies have backed the ability of EMDR to help people heal trauma, and it can be a powerful approach. Reach out today to talk more about how EMDR may be able to assist you in your healing.