Updated: Sep 13
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)
How does EMDR better your mental health?
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is one type of therapy that is used for people who have experienced trauma in their life. Remember the definition of trauma is defined as an event that has occurred outside the range of our human experiences that has caused us distress
So what is EMDR and how does it work?
First of all, let me tell you how it came about. Back in the late 1980s, Francine Shapiro was out walking one day and was thinking about a distressing event that had recently occurred in her life. Francine noticed that as she continued walking, the distressing event became less intense and she was able to sit with the emotions, feelings, and negative beliefs that came up without too much trouble. Francine began to ask herself “what had I been doing prior to help reduce the intensity of the recent disturbing event?” Francine Shapiro noticed that as she was walking and thinking about the event, her eyes had been moving back and forth. Upon further investigation, Francine Shapiro realized that she had been able to mimic REM sleep.
REM sleep is a part of the sleep where people process the events of the day and where the brain files these memories so that we have the memory but it is not something that we think about all of the time. When we experience trauma, the brain has a difficult time processing the event in REM sleep and the experience becomes stuck causing us to be triggered at any moment. During the process of EMDR, the therapist will target the traumatic memory to help the brain process and eventually store the memory without it causing intense emotions.
So what actually occurs during a therapy session using EMDR?
Most clients come into therapy because something is not going well in their life, it could be a relationship, work, or how they feel about themselves. What the clinician will do is explore with the client a negative belief about themselves. Once a negative belief has been established the clinician will ask the client how that negative belief makes them feel, what physical sensations they experience and where they feel it in their body. With some exploring, the client will be able to locate an earlier memory with the same negative belief, emotions, physical sensations and an image or memory about the earlier trauma.
For example, you may come into therapy and explain to the therapist that every time you are in a relationship you have a fear that they are going to leave you. You have no clue why you feel that way, but it evokes a feeling of anxiety and fearfulness. You explain that your negative belief is "I am not safe". With the help of the therapist, you manage to identify a time when you were at the fair with your parents and ended up getting lost. At the time your parents had not realized that you were lost and you are left frantically searching for them. It could have been a couple of minutes or longer, but as you continue searching for them you start to experience fear and anxiety, with the symptoms of shaking, increased heartbeat, nausea, crying and a fear of “I am not safe” and the image of your alone standing next to the Ferris Wheel. The therapist will ask you “when you think of that image on a scale of 0 - 10 with 10 being the most disturbing, what is your level of disturbance?” You shout out “10” and that is how the therapist will be able to measure your levels as they start to decrease.
The therapist will then ask you to think back to that time you were lost at the fair with all of the physical sensations, the fear and anxiety, the image of you standing at the Ferris Wheel, and the negative belief that “I am not safe”. With the help of your brain, you will start to process the events as they unfold in your mind. The therapist will be quiet during this process, checking in every 45-60 seconds to find out your thoughts and will direct you accordingly so that you are able to process the event in its entirety.
Believe it or not, over time the emotions, physical sensations, image and negative belief will start to decrease to a level that no longer bothers you to think about the event at the fair, and a new belief about the situation will be installed. The new belief will be "I am safe". The therapist will then go on to target any other recent events that have occurred in your life with the same negative belief, image, emotions and physical sensations and eventually install the positive belief "I am safe".
As you go through this process, the issue that you first came into therapy for, will no longer be an issue because you were able to process the event at the fair and any subsequent issues, leaving you free to enjoy your relationships.