EMDR - Eye Movement Desensitization & Reprocessing

The EMDR approach is founded on the Adaptive Information Processing Model, which assumes that there is a natural, physically based mechanism in all human beings for processing and resolving disturbing life experiences. Difficulties ensue when memories are stored in raw, unprocessed form, creating a "stinger" that can be triggered by sights, smells, touch or sounds usually at an unconscious level. These past memories retain their power for years to come because they have not been stored within our adaptive memory systems. Think about it like a document filled with mistakes that was created many years ago and stored incorrectly "as is". EMDR work could be compared to pulling up that old document, editing it with appropriate content and storing it in the correct file folder. 

EMDR was discovered in 1987 by a physician named Francis Shapiro when she began experimenting with eye movements similar to what we experience naturally during REM sleep. This method may only be delivered by certified practitioners such as registered psychologists who have taken extensive training and supervision in this protocol. It is recommended that you find a therapist with recent EMDR training, as the protocol has been improved since it was first introduced.  

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) is a therapeutic approach guided by the adaptive information processing (AIP) model, which posits that trauma is stored and stuck in the brain's neural network. Any memory of a traumatic event causes the person to connect to the negative feelings and cognition associated with it. The goal is to add adaptive emotions to the neural network. This is achieved by what is called dual attention; this means taxing the working memory by having the client experience something else while bringing up a difficult memory. The “something else” could be many different things, such as eye movements, holding “tappers” that emit a buzzing sensation, counting backwards, etc. This process creates new neural pathways and the ability to access the stored trauma which allows for the reprocessing of the trauma and a reduction of associated anxiety. 

Problems arise when an experience is inadequately processed. A particularly distressing incident may be frozen in time in its own neural network, unable to connect with other memory networks that hold positive memories.  The original perceptions can continue to be triggered by a variety of internal and external stimuli, resulting in inappropriate emotional, cognitive, and behavioral reactions, as well as overt symptoms (e.g. high anxiety, nightmares, intrusive thoughts). Dysfunctionally stored memories are understood to lay the foundation for future troubling responses, because perceptions of current situations are automatically linked with distorted memory networks. Childhood events also may be encoded with survival mechanisms and include feelings of danger that are inappropriate for adults. However, these past events retain their power because they have not been appropriately stored into adaptive networks.

The AIP model views negative behaviors and personality characteristics as the result of dysfunctionally held information. From this perspective, a negative self-belief (e.g., “I am not good enough”) is not seen as the cause of present dysfunction; it is understood to be a symptom of the unprocessed earlier life experiences that contain that affect and perspective. Attitudes, emotions, and sensations are not considered simple reactions to a past event; they are seen as manifestations of the perceptions stored in memory and the reactions to them. This view of present symptoms as the result of the activation of memories that have been in- adequately processed and stored is integral to EMDR treatment. 

While EMDR was originally mainly used to treat post traumatic memories after the Vietnam War, we now know that EMDR is also effective for many more conditions, including: anxiety, depression, panic attacks, anger, guilt, pain management, crises, transitions, addictions, phobias, and difficulty with decision-making. EMDR is also effective in dealing with exam anxiety, fear of public speaking, and athletes, actors, or musicians with performance anxiety. 

Trauma research indicates that at certain times in our lives, things may have taken place that overwhelmed or traumatized us. These types of situations could be related to dealing with situations like accidents, assaults, difficult diagnoses and loss. Due to the severity of such an event, our brains may have become so flooded with emotions that we were unable to process what had happened. Memories like this are stored with all of the emotions, negative thoughts and body sensations still attached in what we might refer to as “capsules” of pain. 

Most of us understand and accept how someone would have difficulty dealing with the impact of these kind of horrific events, however we might have far less insight and compassion for some of the more “usual” things that we may have gone through, particularly in childhood. It is fairly typical for us to want to dismiss the significance of past events and think that we just need to move on. We might wonder why something from our childhood bothers us so much more than our siblings, which may contribute to feelings of being weak or insecure. 

It is entirely possible for two people to go through the same experience, and one is able to process and deal with it, while the other carries the experience in “raw” form. While temperament may play a role, there are many other conditions that compromise our ability to handle difficult events, such as being ill, weary, sleep-deprived or being in a weakened state. As mentioned, another key aspect to consider is our age. When something happens to us when we are young, we operate with limited resources and logic that typically believes that since we are the center of our little worlds, everything was our fault. As children, we are simply less equipped to cope with difficult events, making them more likely to be stored in “raw or capsule” form. When we are unable to process difficult situations as they happen, our impressions of the event are kept “unprocessed” in the brain.  The result is that our thoughts, feelings, body sensations, images and smells, are kept in these “capsules of pain”. Whenever we experience something in the present that subconsciously triggers this “capsule”, whether through a thought, emotion, sound, smell, or tension in the body, we react with unexplained anger, fear, irritability, insecurity, sadness, or anxiety.

With EMDR, we are able to locate the memories responsible for our present-day distress and reprocess them. When reprocessing, we are able to eliminate the negative impact of past events by allowing new, more adaptive thoughts to have access to  the “capsules’. When this happens, we are able to update and override painful reactions to difficult situations we have been through.

You will not be required to provide a detailed history of events, which both allows for privacy and also speeds up the healing process. During processing, you will be asked to hold a chosen specific memory, in your mind while another distracting form of stimulation, such as eye movements are applied. 

During EMDR processing, there are frequent “check-ins” with the therapist, who is trained to guide the experience towards optimal resolution. You will simply be asked to notice what comes to mind as the processing is happening. Your therapist will ensure that you are in a good place emotionally before you leave the session. You will likely feel tired afterwards, and it would be optimal if you were able to go home and rest. You will be asked to refrain from using alcohol or recreational drugs for the rest of the day in order to allow your processing to continue undisturbed.

If you are interested in moving forward with EMDR, you could start with a single session, or if you have a lot to deal with, you might consider an “EMDR Intensive” which includes four to six extended sessions, often booked over a weekend.

 



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