Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) was initially received skeptically by both the public and by many mental health professionals when it was developed and promoted as a treatment for people suffering with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. However, after several decades of rigorous clinical research, EMDR is now considered standard-of-care treatment for clients with PTSD, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, phobias and other anxiety disorders. EMDR has become one of the most valuable tools in my therapy toolbox and many of my past clients would agree that EMDR treatment has freed them of the effects of trauma so that they can live happier and fuller lives.
What is EMDR and how does it help clients?
The theory behind EMDR and how it helps those with PTSD is based on the knowledge that traumatic memories are not processed by our brain properly. Every day we have thousands of pieces of data (pictures, conversations, memories, events) that our brain attends to and stores in our memory. If our brain did not have a system to properly file away (or get rid of irrelevant) memories our brains would become overstuffed with random, unorganized memories. Imagine a big pile of papers on our desk and that each paper needs to be filed away in the proper folder or be thrown away if the paper isn’t needed anymore. Our brain does this filing or purging of memories and information each night when we sleep. The problem with traumatic memories is that sometimes they don’t get filed away so they are easily triggered by everyday events like smells, sounds, pictures etc.
An example of how traumatic memories can be triggered is illustrated in the example of a woman who was the victim of a physical attack by a male stranger at her bank ATM machine at night. That person may experience high levels of fear when driving by her bank, may refuse to go to any ATM even if she is not alone or may have a flashback to that event when she hears the song that was playing on the radio right before the attack.
EMDR helps clients process traumatic or troubling memories so that they can be remembered if the client chooses to recall that memory. But, after EMDR clients are less likely to be triggered and feel the intense and unpleasant emotions that accompanies that memory. EMDR also addresses the negative thought or beliefs that can result from traumatic events. An example of a negative thought/belief that can develop from a traumatic event using the above example is “I am not safe at night” or “I am not safe around men.” Part of the EMDR process is to help clients have realistic and healthier beliefs related to their trauma which allows clients to live without symptoms of PTSD.
As part of my assessment process, I evaluate if a client has PTSD (or a phobia or other mental disorder that may respond to EMDR) and if they are good candidates for this type of therapy. I spend a couple of sessions getting a history from my clients, preparing them for EMDR with education about the process, reviewing the pros/cons of the treatment, making lists of positive and negative beliefs about their trauma and going over their coping strategies and developing resources. A typical EMDR session begins by having the client select a specific memory that is part of their trauma experience. That memory is brought up and recalled while the client engages is one of the forms of bilateral stimulation that is part of EMDR. Clients do not have to talk about their traumatic memory to EMDR to be helpful. The EMDR protocol involves two key components: the client reviews the traumatic memory while moving their eyes laterally back and forth OR some other type of bilateral stimulation which enables the brain to process and file the traumatic memory away so that clients are not triggered anymore. I utilize either bilateral eye movements OR tapping on my clients hands or knees to engage the EMDR process.
After working through a particular memory, we identify a healthier belief or thought to associate with that traumatic event so that the client is better able to cope with future reminders of the trauma. In cases of complex or multiple traumatic memories, several sessions of EMDR processing may need to occur before clients feel better.
A link to a great resource to learn more about EMDR and to review all the clinical research on EMDR and its efficacy is below. It is the official EMDR Institute website and it includes the most up-to-date information about it use.
I encourage all my clients to read all the information I provide them about EMDR so that they are fully aware of what it can and can’t help with. Clients are discouraged from simply Googling EMDR or watching demonstrations on YouTube as I haven’t found any accurate representations of EMDR being practiced by properly trained therapists.
Below are what some of my past clients have said about their experience using EMDR:
“The picture of that horrible day is no longer jumping into my thoughts when I least expect it. I can remember what happened, but it’s like the picture is fuzzier and further away.”
“I am not having nightmares anymore about the abuse. I know that it wasn’t my fault, I didn’t deserve that to happen to me.”
“I am not afraid to get into an elevator anymore. I used to have to ask for hotel rooms on the first few floors because needed to take the stairs due to fear of getting stuck in the elevator. Now I can tell myself that I am safe in elevators and I believe it!”
While EMDR does not treat all mental health issues or challenges, it has been shown through clinical research to be very effective in helping clients with PTSD and I have seen the benefits of its use over my many years of practice utilizing this protocol with the right clients.
Finding the right counselor is important, therapeutic relationships are built on trust, honesty and mutual respect between the therapist and the client. It is important to find a counselor with whom you feel comfortable sharing your thoughts and feelings AND who has the necessary expertise to help you reach your goals. For that reason, we offer a free brief phone consultation to ensure that we are the right fit for you. If you would like to discuss assertiveness training or some other issue(s), please don’t hesitate to contact Dana Nolan at 407-340-2474.