What is EMDR?

I wanted to take a break from my regularly scheduled blogging topics and discuss another passion of mine, which is EMDR. EMDR is probably one of my favorite therapy modalities that I offer in my East Texas counseling practice. You may or may not have heard of this therapy. I have a three year old and I feel like we may have to play his favorite “why, why, why, why?” game just to fully describe this therapy and dispel some misinformation about it. So I wanted to take the time to answer a few questions around EMDR that I get asked quite a bit: 

What is EMDR? EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. I try not to get too technical with clients (because I can totally nerd out about EMDR!) and describe the process in easily accessible lingo. EMDR is a therapeutic approach that harnesses the power of bilateral stimulation to help people reprocess past present, or future events in their lives that cause distress. 

What do you mean by bilateral stimulation? Yep. It’s hard not to get technical when talking about EMDR and I think this is one of the reasons there is so much mystery and concern about EMDR. It almost sounds like you are getting a medical procedure, but I promise it is much simpler than that. Bilateral stimulation is simply stimulating both sides of the body. For whatever reason scientist have found that this is healing and calming for the body. Weird huh? But now it totally makes sense why we move our eyes back and forth during the most restorative parts of our sleep (REM Sleep) and why we rock babies and sway back and forth when we get nervous! 

Bilateral Stimulation

Do you always have to use Eye Movement, I might get dizzy? No. Any kind of bilateral stimulation works. I often use “tappers” which are tiny buzzers clients can hold in their hands and they alternate buzzing from the left to right hand. With some of my young clients I have also used a feather to brush the back of their hands. You can also use light taps on your legs and arms. I often encourage my younger clients to do something we call “butterfly hugs” or “spider crawls” where they make the shape of a butterfly on their chest with their hands and tap each side of their chest or fold their hands together and alternate raising and lowering all the fingers on each side. Kids find this super calming and it’s helped a lot of my young clients with nighttime anxiety go to sleep. Plus it’s fun and easy to do anywhere. I have even gotten a few of my adult clients on board with this! 

Will I forget my memories? Will my Memories be changed? No! This is one of the biggest misunderstandings. EMDR will not erase or change your memories. We are only helping you reprocess your thoughts and feelings about these memories. After you reprocess an event you will still have memory of the event, it will just not cause you as much distress as it did before. 

What is trauma? Trauma can be any event that is causing you stress and still impacting you. Some traumas are easy to recognize such as abuse, assault, or a terrifying car crash. Some are a little harder to think of as trauma such as, bullying, emotional abuse, or having a sports injury. If an event matters to you and is causing you distress or it’s something that you find yourself thinking about often, it is worth reprocessing. 

Is EMDR only for Trauma? No! I have found EMDR to be helpful in reprocessing the way client’s think about their body image, negative beliefs they have carried around for life (ex. I am not good enough,), and EMDR has even helped some clients reprocess fears like public speaking. I really think every person could benefit from a little EMDR. Another great thing is that EMDR has an element of resource building. Not only do my client’s reprocess difficult life events but EMDR teaches helpful coping skills, decreases emotional avoidance, and helps clients learn to process thought content in a healthy way. 

The coolest part of EMDR is that as a therapist, I really step out of the way and watch clients harness this incredible power for their brains to heal themselves. I just provide a tool but it is honestly so cool to watch the brain provide it’s own healing. 

Will it really help? EMDR changed my life. I was such a skeptic at first. Now I have seen it change the lives of so many of my clients. It is also great for people who want to try something different from traditional talk therapy. EMDR is effective and great for most people. I can personally say that in 6 months of sessions I reprocessed events that I had spent years talking about in traditional cognitive behavioral therapy. 

What can I expect? This is different depending on the clinician. So I can only tell you what you can expect from me personally. I generally begin EMDR one of two ways. I will often recognize trauma or significant memories and begin to target these specifically. Sometimes I will work backwards and recognize a consistent negative thought pattern or cognition that a client shares and we will work to process when they first began to believe this, when they remember believing this most strongly, and the most recent time they believed this. We will usually set up treatment plan together targeting negative thoughts and their concurring memories. Then I provide a lot of psychoeducation about EMDR. I do this because EMDR can seem so technical and foreign to people who have done a lot of talk therapy and I want the client to know what to expect. I introduce the tappers that clients will hold in their hand and we select a speed and intensity that is comfortable to them. Then I start work on “installing” a coping skill called safe/comfortable space. EMDR protocol encourages the use of scripts and I believe it is beneficial to follow them. The Safe/Comfortable Place scripted protocol is one of my favorites and I have found for a lot of clients giving this skill is helpful, even as a compliment to talk therapy. Many of my clients use it to help calm themselves when they are feeling anxious or stressed. After this we usually begin working on a specific memory and its resulting thoughts and feelings until it is no longer distressing to the client. This can take anywhere from 20 minutes to 3-4 sessions, depending on the event and how entrenched the thoughts are. During this time we are using bilateral stimulation (or passes) with a brief pause where the client will give me a short summary of what came up during the passes. Once the event is completely reprocessed we move on to “install” a positive cognition in the place of a negative cognition. I also end every EMDR session with a “containment exercise” that helps clients have a healthy way to manage triggers that came up or might come up throughout the week. Many clients also report that this has been helpful for them too and they use this resource outside of therapy when they feel distressed. 

EMDR can be a game changer. Even as I am trying to summarize it here, I realize how difficult it is to explain. This is a very reduced version, because it would be impossible to write about all of the resources that EMDR provides in one blog post. My best advice to anyone is to give EMDR a try! Even if you are skeptical or think that you haven’t experienced enough trauma to warrant trying EMDR, I know that it can benefit most everyone. Don’t be put off by how different it seems, EMDR has actually been well researched and is the gold standard treatment approach for numerous psychological struggles. I could talk about EMDR all day so if you want to know more feel free to ask me anything! 

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