Eye Movement & Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR) Therapy
Eye Movement Desensitization & Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy is an evidence-based form of psychotherapy based on the adaptive information processing (AIP) model, which posits that trauma is stored and stuck in a neural network in the brain as maladaptive information. Any memory of a traumatic event can cause a person to connect to the feelings, body sensations and cognitions associated with it.
The goal of EMDR therapy is to add adaptive emotions, cognitions and body sensations to this neural network. This is obtained through bilateral stimulation, a process that creates new neural pathways, which enables access to the stored trauma when the person is able to regulate emotions effectively in a safe place such as therapy. This bilateral stimulation, BLS, is accessed through eye movements or other mechanisms and allows for the reprocessing of trauma. The person then becomes desensitized and experiences a reduction of associated anxiety, thereby creating new associations with memories and increased adaptive behaviours.
What is EMDR?
Courtesy of EMDR International Association:
What kinds of challenges can EMDR treat?
Scientific research has established EMDR Therapy as effective for post traumatic stress. However, clinicians also have reported success using EMDR Therapy in treatment of the following conditions:
Sexual and/or Physical Abuse
Body Dysmorphic Disorders
If you are interested in learning more, I highly recommend the book Getting Past Your Past by Francine Shapiro, who developed EMDR. It is available here from Amazon:
How did EMDR therapy start?
In the late 1980s, Francine Shapiro, Ph.D., discovered a connection between eye movement and persistent upsetting memories. With this personal insight, she began what became a lifelong study and development of Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy. Over the years, and in the face of initial skepticism, Dr. Shapiro's work developed from a hypothesis to a formal therapy process. EMDR therapy has been demonstrated to be effective for treating trauma in randomized clinical trials, case studies and millions of clinical hours treating trauma and trauma-related disorders across the globe. From the American Psychiatric Association, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (USVA) and Department of Defense (USDOD), the United Kingdom’s National Institute for Health Care and Excellence (NICE), and the World Health Organization (WHO), multiple global organizations now recognize the effectiveness of EMDR therapy.
Having started out as an English teacher, Shapiro summed up her life’s work with William Blake’s line:
“For the eye altering alters all.”
How does EMDR therapy differ from other modalities, such as traditional talk therapy?
Traditional talk therapy, such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), looks at thinking patterns that influence behaviours and works to change maladaptive belief systems in order to improve current functioning. EMDR therapy looks at the memory networks that seem to be driving current symptoms and distress. Once those memory networks have been identified, the information held in these networks, including distressing images, beliefs, emotions, and physical sensations, are stimulated through the brain’s own information processing system. The disturbing memory can then link up to other adaptive memory networks and thus become integrated as part of our personal narrative without the previously held level of distress. As these memories move to adaptive resolution, one will experience healthier responses to current life stressors and a greater sense of safety, belonging, and esteem in relationships and life in general.
How does EMDR therapy affect the brain?
Our brains have a natural way to recover from traumatic memories and events. This process involves communication between the amygdala (the alarm signal for stressful events), the hippocampus (which assists with learning, including memories about safety and danger), and the prefrontal cortex (which analyzes and controls behaviour and emotion). While many times traumatic experiences can be managed and resolved spontaneously, they may not be processed without help.
Stress responses are part of our natural fight, flight, or freeze instincts. When distress from a disturbing event remains, the upsetting images, thoughts, and emotions may create an overwhelming feeling of being back in that moment, or of being “frozen in time.” EMDR therapy helps the brain reprocess these memories, and allows normal healing to resume. The experience is still remembered, but the fight, flight, or freeze response from the original event is resolved.
How long will EMDR therapy take?
One potential advantage of EMDR therapy is that it may allow clients to resolve trauma more efficiently and effectively than other approaches. There are many factors that contribute to the number of sessions needed for resolution, including extent and nature of trauma, access to positive or adaptive memory networks, level of internal and external resources and resiliency. While EMDR therapy can resolve traumatic memories rapidly, it is difficult to assess how many sessions may be needed.
I’ve been seeing my therapist for several sessions, and we haven’t started EMDR yet. Why not?
Many people equate bilateral eye movements with EMDR therapy. While eye movements are an important component of the memory reprocessing phases of EMDR therapy, they are just one piece of a robust eight-phase protocol, which includes history taking and preparation phases. From the moment you are introduced to your therapist, you begin EMDR therapy. For example, the preparation phase may include learning distress tolerance skills or mindfulness techniques. Your therapist is trained to determine what pace will be most beneficial for your needs.
For more information on EMDR therapy, please visit: