Eye movement desensitization reprocessing therapy (EMDR) is acknowledged by the American Psychiatric Association as a helpful therapeutic technique to treat a number of mental health conditions is including post traumatic stress disorder (PSTD) and acute stress disorder.
This therapeutic technique can assist the movement of traumatic memories into a space of healthy memory that does not trigger physical symptoms of fight, flight, or freeze. Understanding more about EMDR will help you to determine whether it is a technique that could work for you.
EMDR is conducted by a trained therapist who uses the structured approach to focus on a target memory of a past trauma or adverse life experience. This traumatic memory is worked with in a safe space with the therapist.
The therapist uses bilateral stimulation, usually with rapid eye movements, but this can be with bilateral movement or sound. The bilateral stimulation is present whilst you share the distressing memories, focusing not only on the event but on the thoughts, feelings, and body sensations that you experienced.
A therapist usually asks you to follow their finger movements with your eyes as you are speaking. They keep up a rhythmic movement to create the stimulation required for EMDR therapy.
After this you will instill a positive belief related to the memory to replace the negative belief that has been held. This will help you to process the memory so that it no longer has psychological and physical symptoms of distress attached to it.
A typical EMDR session will involve eight phases:
These sessions will continue until you and your therapist feel that you have reprocessed the memories that you need to and are no longer stuck in a state of survival and hyperarousal.
When viewing EMDR as a therapy for trauma related disorders and experiences we need to have a basic understanding of the types of trauma that can be experienced.
Trauma, by definition of the American Psychiatric Association, is any event directly or indirectly experienced that threatens your feeling of safety relating to grievous injury or death. Anything that is experienced in this way can create a traumatic memory.
Acute trauma is when there is a single traumatic event. This event may be an assault, accident, natural disaster, etc. This suggests that there will be one event that needs to be addressed in therapy. Acute trauma can result in acute stress disorder or PTSD if it is not processed correctly.
Chronic trauma is when there is multiple or long term traumatic events. These events may be domestic violence, continued abuse, war, poverty, etc. These events compound each other and there will be multiple events that will need to be worked on in therapy. This will extend the span of therapy as you will reprocess one event at a time.
Complex trauma is when there are multiple and varied traumatic events that have occurred over a long period of time. This often includes domestic violence, childhood neglect and abuse, etc. Therapy will need to address each of these events to allow for a full reprocessing to be done. Your therapist may decide to work from the oldest remembered trauma to the present.
EMDR can work for anyone. Some therapists specialize in working with children, others with teenagers and adults.
Many people feel that the use of EMDR is less intrusive than talk therapy when dealing with trauma and prefer to try this method. The World Health Organization has given EMDR therapy the green light for all individuals, specifically those dealing with trauma related difficulties, or PTSD.
EMDR therapy works with an understanding of how the brain processes information and what happens when it is faced with a traumatic memory.
In the brain, memory processing involves three key areas:
When a traumatic memory is encoded there seems to be a flood from the amygdala which interrupts the processing and shuts down the prefrontal cortex’s ability to differentiate between past and present. This often means that you can be convinced that the experience is happening in the present moment and feel the psychological and physical symptoms of the event each time you think of the memory or are reminded of it.
EMDR therapy aims to use bilateral stimulation to overcome this phenomenon and allow for the memory to be correctly stored and interpreted as a past experience. Once this has been achieved the physical symptoms that are experienced should lessen and finally no longer present a problem. This indicates that the memory is fully reprocessed and is seen as a past memory that can be thought of without having a physical and emotional reaction.
EMDR is primarily used to treat PTSD, acute stress disorder, and any other difficulties due to traumatic incident exposure.
There are therapists that use this technique further to dig into the roots and assist in alleviating symptoms of anxiety, depression, substance abuse, eating disorders, and personality disorders.
If you feel that EMDR might work for what you are experiencing it could be worth visiting an EMDR trained therapist to talk about the possibility of using this technique.
EMDR therapy works within the framework of adaptive information processing and supports the biological system that is affected by the traumatic memory. Traumatic experiences can be likened to an injury on the brain. This is why the brain struggles to process the memory.
Often people fear talking about the traumatic memory as they feel it simply re-traumatizes the individual. EMDR therapy offers an alternative to simply speaking about the event. EMDR therapy brings the awareness to thoughts and physical sensations related to the event as well. This frames the memory within a more objective lens. This combined with bilateral stimulation is seen as a less invasive method to assist with the reprocessing of trauma.
Other than being less stressful to the client, EMDR therapy involves less homework than other approaches. Large amounts of homework can leave a person feeling overwhelmed or guilty if they do not get to it. EMDR therapy will only have homework related to the tools provided in the therapy session to guide the client to the next session.
EMDR therapy has been seen to work more rapidly than other approaches, allowing the client to reprocess and regain a high quality of life within a short period of time. It has been noted that single exposure trauma may take as little as five sessions to treat. The more complex or compound the trauma is, the longer the treatment span will be. This is due to the need to address one traumatic memory at a time.
All traumatic experiences can have serious repercussions and affects on an individual and their ability to function at home, in social relationships, and at work. This can limit the quality of life that they might enjoy.
Reaching out for assistance is a helpful manner to take back the quality of life you would like and to reprocess your traumatic experiences. If you need this assistance, or wish to find out more about it, contact us at One Life Counselling and Coaching.
If you have experienced a trauma, remember that you do not have to heal from it alone. You can reach out and create a support system. You are also not to blame for the trauma that has happened. It is sad that this has happened to you, and it is alright to acknowledge the fact that it is scary and painful. There are ways for you to heal from this trauma and move forward in your life to continue to achieve and succeed.