Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)

EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. It was created in the late 1980s by Francine Schapiro. It was initially created for the treatment of trauma. However, some 30 years later and thousands of dollars spent on EMDR research, we now know it can be used for so much more than just trauma. Multiple studies from 1993 -2015 have shown EMDR’s effectiveness for the following disorders: Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), anxiety, depression, grief & mourning, chronic pain, panic disorder, attachment disorders, sexual dysfunctions, self-esteem, conduct problem, and phobias.

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In an EMDR session, the therapist introduces something called Bilateral Stimuli (BLS) for about 30-60 sections at a time as the client is asked to think of a specific thought or memory. At the end of the 30-60 seconds, the therapist asks you what you noticed, whether it be a thought, feeling, or sensation. You then repeat BLS with the new thought, feeling, or sensation that came up. It’s like hiking. You get on a path and follow it and see where it takes you. Bilateral Stimuli (BLS) sounds scary, but it really isn’t. There is no electricity that is used or wires hooked up to your brain or anything like that. There are three ways the therapist can introduce BLS for you. One, have you move your eyes from side to side. Two, have you held buzzers in your hands that vibrate back and forth. Three, use headphones that beep from one ear to the other. There is no one right way of doing EMDR. There is a lot of flexibility for the therapist and client to come up with what works best for the client. In my practice, I use a light bar, which allows for more flexibility and personal space for my clients. Some therapists will have you follow their fingers or a pointer stick with your eyes.

Why Does EMDR work? The simple answer is we don’t know. We believe it has to do with what happens during REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep. During REM sleep, your brain is more active. You dream and process your day. Studies suggest that a lack of REM sleep can lead to increased anxiety, depression, and even migraines. For some reason, EMDR has shown that when we recreate the REM sleep cycle when we are awake and focusing on difficult emotions or past hurts, our brains are able to reprocess how we feel about the past. Trauma and anxiety cause the brain to be over-activated, and over time the hippocampus can shrink. This can lead to being easily startled or feeling like you’re on edge all the time. Functional MRIs (fMRI) and PET scans have shown less brain activation and regrowth of the hippocampus volume after EMDR. This leads to a decrease in distressing symptoms.

It is important to understand that EMDR is NOT hypnosis. During EMDR, you are conscious and awake the entire time. In fact, EMDR works best when the individual is fully present emotionally and psychologically.

We ask our clients to trust us as we guide them through EMDR. There is hard work before and after EMDR that needs to take place. We live in a broken world where things happen to us outside of our control.