As a certified EMDR therapist, these are common questions or comments I often get about EMDR Therapy:
What is EMDR Therapy?
I’m not sure if it’s right for me and what I want to focus on in therapy.
Is it like hypnosis?
I hear it’s faster than other therapies, is this true?
I’ve heard some people have felt worse after doing an EMDR session. Is this what I can expect?
So today, I’d like to give you the real on EMDR Therapy.
What it is, how it works, what it’s helpful for, and is it really a quick fix?
1. What is EMDR Therapy?
EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. Francine Shapiro, PhD developed the approach in the late eighties to treat trauma and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). It’s now applied to reduce the effects of many less severe yet stressful life experiences and addictions as well. Below, I will give you some examples.
EMDR talks about the brain as an Adaptive Information Processing system. It takes information in, stores information away that we need, much like a file in a filing cabinet, and then gets rid of the rest.
But, this same system, when too overwhelmed because of a dangerous, horrific, and unexpected situation, will shut down our long-term processing function and turn on our alarm system. Our Fight, Flight, Freeze system. It’s this later system that helps us to survive and get through whatever we’re facing. There is no time to think. Only react.
But this also means the incident, and all it’s information, isn’t fully processed. It’s stuck with all the images, sounds, smells, emotions, and physical sensations. The moment is replayed over and over in the mind as if it happened yesterday. Frustrating for many who want so much to put the past away.
So how does EMDR therapy come in to play?
An EMDR therapist helps to identify specific moments in your life that continue to cause unwanted reactions today. Specific questions are asked to stimulate the memory, and then bilateral stimulation techniques (alternating Eye Movements, tapping, sounds, or other techniques) are applied as your mind processes the memory. The memory becomes unstuck and put away without all the emotional and physiological reactions to it (Desensitization). In the end, you have a different perspective on the situation as well as a different belief about yourself in this situation. Leading to a different perspective of yourself, others, and the world in general (Reprocessing).
EMDR is done while you are present in the room. This is where it may differ from hypnosis. It’s about having one foot in the present and one foot in the past, but always alert and aware of where you are. The alternating eye movements and others are used for this reason. Many find it calming, soothing, and help tolerate emotions. If it’s suspected you are losing present moment awareness, steps are taken to pause the process and help orient you back to the present moment before moving forward.
2. What does EMDR Therapy treat?
EMDR focuses on life experiences that have a negative emotional or physical impact on you. Life experiences are explained in two ways. “Big T” traumas and “Little t” traumas.
Examples of Big T traumas are:
- Experiences of war
- Experiences of First Responders
- Severe Car accidents
- Natural disasters
- Victim of a crime
- Victim of physical abuse, sexual abuse, severe emotional/physical neglect, domestic violence
- Witnessing a crime or accident
Examples of Little t traumas are:
- Negative / disparaging comments from others (parents, partners, authority figures)
- Non-life-threatening accidents (dog bite, minor car accident)
- Divorce, Break-up
- Victim of bullying
- Some Phobias
- Performance anxiety
- Phase of life changes (i.e. – leaving to college, loss of job, relocating)
- Situational depression and/or panic attacks that presented after a significant incident
EMDR helps to find Connection and Resolution.
3. Is EMDR Therapy really the quick fix?
Yes and No.
A client who has experienced a single traumatic incident that occurred fairly recently, usually completes therapy in 4 to 12 sessions or less (1 to 3 months).
A client who has experienced a series of traumatic incidents either throughout his or her life, or a series of incidents occurring within a very short period of time, will need 6 months to a year or more.
A client afraid of emotions, or has never learned the right tools to manage them, will need more preparation time to feel safe and confident in his or her ability to do so before starting EMDR.
The answer: It depends. Depends on one’s history and experiences, current knowledge and use of healthy coping tools, and current support system.
4. What about those who report not having a good experience with EMDR?
First, it’s expected that some discomfort will be experienced during the process. This is true of any therapy approach. To overcome these memories and reactions is to move towards them. Ignoring and pushing them away may only lead to further anxiety, depression, or addictive behaviors. Having said that, pacing and preparing is a part of EMDR. This brings me to my next point.
An EMDR therapist well trained and experienced in the therapy is important. An EMDR therapist should work at a pace right for you, listens to you, and willing to take enough preparation time to give you skills you need before doing EMDR. Also, a well trained EMDR therapist will recognize and use appropriate steps to make sure you are not being overwhelmed with memories, images, and emotions. The session will be paced so you are feeling calm and in a good place before walking out of the session room.
EMDR is not just about techniques. EMDR includes preparation, pace, and environment of safety in order to be effective.
Finally, it’s important that a therapist is open to utilizing another approach and/or refer you to someone that may be better fit for you. I truly believe in the effects of EMDR and amazed by my clients’ transformations, but I know that it will not be for everyone. As a therapist, it’s more important to me that you are reaching the goals that you want to achieve even if that’s not with me.
In my next blog, I will talk about important questions to ask when looking for an EMDR therapist.
***On the same day of completing this blog and posting it, I received news that the developer of EMDR, Francine Shapiro, PhD passed away. Dr. Shapiro’s approach to therapy has truly changed the world of therapy and so many lives around the world. I feel honored to be able to continue to share her work and continue to help clients heal. I leave you with a quote from Dr. Shapiro that shows her dedication:
“I want to repeat the same thing I have said for years. There is so much we have done, but so much to do. Anyone who cares to, can open the treatment room doors in a way that can really make an impact. Documenting your outcomes and sharing it is ‘research.’ Research is not just about proving to others. It is a way to guide each one of us to establish the best practices. It is about staying on the right road.”