EMDR was originally developed for PTSD. It can be used to help people manage difficulties associated with any trauma, even when a client does not meet criteria for a PTSD diagnosis. Additionally, research shows it is beneficial for anxiety, chronic pain, phobias, grief, anger management, obsessive compulsive disorder and bipolar disorder.
Usually, when something difficult happens, it happens first to the body, then the emotions kick in and you start to reprocess the event – you think on it, talk about it, sleep on it, dream about it, let time pass, etc. At the end of that difficult event you remember what happened, but it no longer bothers you with the same intensity. We have a feeling that it happened in the past. When we have had a difficult or traumatic experience, often our bodies and minds naturally heal themselves; however, sometimes our brain’s information-processing system gets stuck which negatively impacts our mental and physical healing.
EMDR is based on the Adaptive Information Processing Model (AIP.) The AIP model posits that the human brain can usually process stressful information to heal the self. During stressful situations, this processing can be impaired and the memory may go unprocessed and stored in a maladaptive form. The situation gets stored in its original distressing form and is blocked from connecting to other memories that provide adaptive information that allows us to heal. Dysfunctionally stored memories are the foundation for future ineffective responses, because perceptions of current situations are automatically linked with memory networks of these unprocessed memories. EMDR activates the AIP and reprocesses the memory by integrating adaptive memory networks which leads to a decrease in symptoms and enables one to learn and move on from the initial experience.
In EMDR treatment, the client and therapist work together to identify what difficult experience would be beneficial to reprocess. Memories chosen to reprocess are ones that still illicit high distress for you in the here-and-now when you look back at the situation. The therapy involves thinking about that experience while the brain is also being stimulated by: tracking a therapist’s hand with one’s eyes, listening to alternating beeps on headphones, feeling vibrations in alternate hands, or alternative tapping on the client’s knees by the therapist – this is called bilateral stimulation. This dual awareness is akin to the brain processes activated during the dream stage of REM sleep, but in a conscious state. Part of dreaming is processing our experiences. You will have one foot in the past with the image of your memory, and one foot in the present with the stimulation.
In successful EMDR therapy, new associations and perspectives arise and the meaning of painful events changes. For example, one may move from self-blame and feelings of powerlessness to self-compassionate understanding and feelings of strength. These new insights are gained from the client’s own cognitive and emotional processing versus clinical interpretation related to traditional talk therapy.
On a biological level, EMDR has been shown to:
Sounds like the back-story for a sci-fi movie; however, it’s evidence-based treatment that has the data to prove it works!