What the heck is EMDR? EMDR stands for eye-movement desensitization and reprocessing. Francine Shapiro, Ph.D, the woman that developed EMDR, suggests that painful or traumatic memories can get “locked” in the brain. These memories are often fragmented and incomplete and they can lead to us kinda keeping that memory with us in a way that is harmful. So, if something happens that reminds us of that painful memory, we will respond as if that event is happening again and again… right then and there. The tricky thing is, sometimes we don’t even know when something reminds us, or triggers us, we’re just having these really intense responses… we can definitely talk about that (EMDR can still be an option for you).
Before I start getting into an explanation of what EMDR is, I want to point out that you are 100% in control of this process. This is your brain doing all of the “magic”, not me. I’m just here to guide and support you. You are able to stop at any time or “press pause”, that is absolutely ok. Also EMDR doesn’t erase the memory or make us forget anything (more on that below). Alrighty… back to the explanation… as a side note, I can get wordy, so definitely feel free to contact me here or call me at 512-553-2054 to set up a free 15 minute phone consultation.
OK, back to it… to give an example of how we can re-live something, let’s consider that we had a bad experience a few years ago and there was a dog barking during that event. If we hear a barking dog now, we may have the same response as we did when that event occurred (i.e. tense muscles, feeling the want to run, experience the sensations of fear). There may be no current danger, but our body may respond that there is because that fragmented memory is “stuck”. If we don’t work on that memory… every time it comes up for us again (i.e. think of the dog barking), we’ll just reinforce that fragmented memory in the brain again and again. This doesn’t help us heal!
So, what does EMDR do with all of this? EMDR takes these memories and works to “desensitize” them. In other words, it helps us to look at the memory through a different, more adaptive lens. During the "desensitization” portion, you would typically engage in guided eye movements. If that’s uncomfortable for any reason, we also have some other options that we can chat about too. Once the memory is “desensitized” we work on the “reprocessing". That will also involve the eye movements, but focuses on the flip side. For example, if the difficult event makes you think you can’t trust yourself… we’d look at sitting with the flip of that… that you can trust yourself. This points to one of the things I really like about EMDR… it’s not just about working through the difficult memory… you will also be able to bring in positive thoughts as well.
The more intense memories will take more sessions, but EMDR has been able to have an impact on some people in a short amount of time. This is definitely something we’d discuss more in depth if you’re thinking this is a good fit for you. Did I just create more questions than answers? Ha! It’s fairly complex, so it absolutely makes sense if you have questions and these can all be addressed in session.
Ultimately, Dr. Shapiro, who developed EMDR, explains it way better than I could:
Often, when something traumatic happens, it seems to get locked in the brain with the original picture, sounds, thoughts, feelings, and so on. Since the experience is locked there, it continues to be triggered whenever a reminder comes up. It can be the basis for a lot of discomfort and sometimes a lot of negative emotions, such as fear and helplessness, that we can’t seem to control. These are really the emotions connected with the old experience that are being triggered. The eye movements we use in EMDR seem to unlock the system and allow your brain to process the experience. That may be what is happening in REM, or rapid eye movement, sleep, when our most intense dreaming takes place: The eye movements appear to be involved during the processing of unconscious material. The important thing to remember is that it is your own brain that will be doing the healing and that you are the one in control.
From Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) Therapy (pg. 115)