What is EMDR??


The Genius and Applications of EMDR

Since starting to use EMDR therapy, I have seen clients make more progress in one session than they might typically make in months. Memories and beliefs that have haunted them for years are positively resolved in days. If I were you reading this article, right about now I would start to think two things; 1.) This sounds too good to be true, and 2.) This article is a big commercial for what one particular therapist does. The answer to hesitation number 1. will be the subject of this article, and regarding hesitation number 2., I am not the only EMDR trained therapist in the Twin Cities. I want you to try it out for yourself, and feel the freedom that it brings, even if it is not with me! If you would like to pursue EMDR with a qualified therapist in Minnesota, you can find a long list of qualified professionals here: EMDR Therapists in Minnesota.

Now, getting back to hesitation numero uno, I have personally received EMDR therapy and experienced its effectiveness myself, and have used it with clients in my own practice with great success. In both instances, memories that have been at an 8 or a 10 on a 10 point scale of stressful or annoying thoughts have been brought down to 3’s and 2’s, and even 0’s in as little as a couple sessions!

What kind of memories are we talking about here? What is EMDR effective at treating?

Basically if you have had something bad or distressing happen to you, you could benefit from EMDR therapy. EMDR can help resolve traumatic or distressing events that happen to mostly everyone at some point in our lives. Some examples include memories of being picked on, left out, depressed and disappointed. It also addresses memories of feeling or being neglected by our parents, grandparents, friends, boyfriend, girlfriend, spouse, or someone you looked up to or expected to receive validation, affirmation or love from. EMDR also effectively resolves memories of particular scary events in our lives such as car crashes, fires, crimes, and weather related events to name a few. Lastly, EMDR therapy resolves memories of things no person should have to go through including physical abuse, verbal abuse, and sexual abuse and assault.

EMDR can also effectively treat presently ongoing problems such as marital and sexual dysfunction, anxiety including anxiety related to school, business, sports, and public speaking, depression, eating disorders, negative body image and self-confidence, even migraines and phantom limb pain. These are just a few of the hundreds of symptoms and situations that EMDR has effectively helped people cope with and bring to a positive resolution. Please don’t hesitate to contact me if you would like more information about how EMDR works and if it could be a beneficial part of therapy for you.

What do you mean by “resolve or treat my memories?” Does this mean I’m going to forget those particular memories?confused

EMDR does not seek to change or erase your memories, and this very rarely happens. Instead, you retain the memories you target for processing, but the negative emotions associated with them disappear. What does this mean?

Say for example that Johnny gave a speech to his 7th grade class and was laughed at, and his brain was unable to process the entire trauma that night during his REM sleep. Now that memory (which was not entirely adaptively processed but stored in a physical space in his brain that it shouldn’t have been) causes him enormous anxiety when he is asked to give presentations at his new job. During EMDR therapy, Johnny targets this memory and makes new associations and insights regarding it. He realizes during reprocessing that kids can be overly cruel as they were that day, he remembered that he was under-prepared for the presentation anyway due to some event out of his control from the night before, and that the speech he gave and his peers’ reactions to it do not bear any weight on his present-day skills, abilities, and certainly not on his self-worth. After processing this memory, Johnny knows that he is capable of giving excellent presentations when well prepared, and that he actually gets satisfaction from passing new ideas along to a crowd. He leaves therapy confident in his ability to give presentations. He is still aware of the memory from 7th grade, but is free of the anxiety and shame that was once associated with it.

In a nutshell, present triggers involuntarily bring up old unprocessed negative memories and the negative emotions associated with them. “The past becomes present.” After processing those negative memories, what was once a trigger will no longer cause you to feel the negative emotions with the targeted memory. You still retain your memories, but you will have made new positive associations and insights regarding those memories that will allow you to feel differently about them, and not be triggered in the future.

How is this possible?

Our brains naturally process all the things that happened to us and the things we learned from the day before. It does this during the REM sleep cycle, which if you’re lucky, should happen 4-5 times per night. During REM sleep, our brain deciphers all the useful things we learned that day and files them away in a more long term storage space. It also separates and discards all the non-useful, meaningless random stuff that we won’t need later. This happens smoothly every night, except when we experienced trauma that day!

This doesn’t have to be trauma from war or a car crash kind of trauma to keep our brains from fully processing the memories from the day before (big “T” trauma). Smaller traumas that happens to us as kids like not getting a hug from mom when you wanted or that moment when you realized your sister ripped up all your baseball cards (little “t” trauma) can also be maladaptively stored in our brains. That stuff might not seem like such a big deal to us now looking back at it as adults, but in the moment it was traumatic, and thus our little brains were not able to process it all in one night, leaving much of it lodged in a place it shouldn’t be for years until we get EMDR therapy!

During EMDR, the therapist uses one or several kinds of “bi-lateral stimulation” to jump start the natural process that occurs during REM sleep. During this phase of EMDR, you are able to target the specific memory you want processed instead of letting your brain randomly process whatever it wants as it usually does each night. This has nothing to do with hypnosis or anything like that. You are awake, you are aware, and you are fully in control of yourself and of what happens during the session. The therapist is there to help and guide you, and should be a source of safety and security for you while you go through these traumatic memories.

The sound of “bi-lateral stimulation” scares the heck out of me. Whats that all about?

In EMDR, we're making new connections between both sides of the brain!

In EMDR, we’re making new connections between both sides of the brain!

Bi-lateral stimulation is what we use to get both hemispheres of the brain talking to each other so that you can make the new positive associations and insights that you need to regarding a specific memory or set of memories. There are a few different kinds of bi-lateral stimulation.

The most empirically validated (proven to work) method is by using guided eye movements. We don’t know exactly why, but we know that our eyes move back and forth from left to right when we are in a REM sleep cycle. During EMDR, we mimic that process by having the client follow our fingers as we move them from left to right a few feet in front of them, usually the distance between our shoulders. Some therapists also utilize a light bar where the client can follow a light back and forth instead of the therapists hands.

If the client doesn’t like using the eye movements (I never did as it gave me headaches, but most people prefer it) we can also use auditory stimulation. The client would wear headphones and listen to a quick ‘beep” or “hum” that would alternate between the right and left side. We can also use tactile stimulation where the client would hold a set of “tappers,” which are two little pieces of plastic, each a little smaller than an old flip phone. The client would hold one “tapper” in each hand, and they will produce short little spurts of alternating vibration.Through the use of either the eye movements, the auditory or the tactile simulation, we jump start the brain’s natural process to get both hemispheres talking to each other and start processing old memories.

That’s all for today, look for more articles about EMDR to come, but as always, please let me know if you have any questions or if you would like to consult regarding utilizing EMDR as part of your therapy experience!

More information about EMDR can be found at www.emdria.org and www.emdr.com.

Take care everyone!

Jake Voelker MA, LMFT