If you’ve never heard of EMDR or if you’ve heard the name but want to know more about what it entails and how it is used in trauma treatment, this article is for you.
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy (EMDR) is an evidence-based therapy originally introduced in 1987 as EMD by Dr. Shapiro. It is often used to treat Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). It can also be effective with various other affective disorders and can also be used in combination with other treatment models.
EMDR aims to help clients reprocess traumatic memories and decrease the distress related to those memories. This process is based on a theory called the adaptive information processing model. The adaptive memory network includes positive memories and negative memories that have been resolved and integrated. The goal of EMDR is to move traumatic memories into the adaptive memory network where they are integrated and no longer cause distress (Hase et al., 2017).
It is important to note that the adaptive information processing model functions under the assumption that it is natural for our minds to attempt to process and integrate information in a movement toward healing. However, experiences of trauma can be so overwhelming to the brain and body that this integration may be disrupted. Through EMDR therapy, the client and therapist work together to access what is blocking this integration process to then facilitate the healing process (Chamberlin, 2019).
If you or a loved one has experienced any type of trauma, you know that disruption in the brain and body can seriously impact a person’s daily life. Trauma does not only refer to an event. Rather, trauma is the psychological and physiological impact that an experience or multiple experiences can have on a person. Symptoms of trauma can include:
- Recurring memories of the distressing experience
- Feelings of intense worry, fear, shame, guilt, and confusion
- Physical symptoms of pain or dizziness
- Avoidance of anything that reminds a person of an unpleasant experience
- Social isolation
- Trouble with memory and concentration
- Heightened arousal and hypervigilance
- Persistent irritability
- Difficulty sleeping
- Dissociation or feelings of being detached
- Flashbacks or recurrent distressing dreams
The good news is that there are evidence-based ways to reintegrate these distressing memories and alleviate the associated symptoms that may be severely affecting a person’s life (Hoogsteder et al., 2021). If you are reading this list and feel that you may have these symptoms, you may benefit from EMDR treatment.
How does EMDR work?
While there is structure to EMDR, it is rarely a perfectly linear process. The beginning of this therapeutic process can include information gathering about certain memories and triggers to determine the focus of treatment.
The relationship between therapist and client is of course incredibly important to foster openness and trust while identifying these overwhelming memories. The therapist can build on client’s ability to access memories through accurate attunement. Both negative and positive memories are identified and mapped out throughout this process as clients need access to both to reprocess.
This memory identification can often be completed through exploration of the client’s current reactions and experiences as a window into past potentially traumatic or negative experiences. At this point in treatment, a cue is also identified to allow the client to communicate that they would like to stop during processing if needed (Hase, 2021).
Within the reprocessing phase of treatment, the therapist utilizes bilateral stimulation. Bilateral simulation can involve an alternation of eye movement, sounds, or physical touch between two sides of the body. The type of bilateral stimulation utilized in EMDR is alternating eye movement from side to side.
While the client accesses memories through imaginative exposure, the therapist incorporates this bilateral stimulation, associating the two. Bilateral stimulation has been shown to facilitate comfort, relaxation, and stabilization. It is used in EMDR therapy in two ways: for desensitizing traumatic memories and reinforcing safe and positive memories.
By reprocessing negative memories using bilateral stimulation, they can be integrated into strengthened adaptive memory networks. Additionally, through reinforcing positive memories, EMDR can be used to prepare clients for future experiences by building on adaptive memory integration (Amano & Toichi, 2016).
After reprocessing, clients are often able to find new insights, meaning, and understanding of the painful event and may experience a shift in their emotional experience of it. These adaptive changes are signs that memories are being integrated.
Within this healing process the role of the relationship between client and therapist is a key ingredient as they remain connected throughout the memory accessing and reprocessing phase. This connection can be maintained by the therapist through words and attunement to body language. As the client re-experiences their memories whether painful or pleasant, therapists stay mindful of client needs and respond non-judgmentally and in real time.
This process of attunement fosters the safe and trusting relationship needed to allow clients to access a deep range of their emotions. As clients are able to create new memory connections, their experience of past trauma may shift because they no longer have to carry the negative emotional and cognitive sensations that were once associated with it (Oren & Solomon, 2012).
If you need immediate assistance, please find hotlines listed below that are available 24/7 that can provide support and resources in a crisis:
- National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline: 988
- Crisis Text Line: Text HOME to 741741
- Veterans Crisis Line: 800-273-TALK (8255) and press 1
- The National Sexual Assault Hotline: 800-656-HOPE (4673)
- National Domestic Violence Hotline: 800-799-SAFE (7233)
If you or a loved one is interested in EMDR treatment with a clinician at Matone Counseling and Testing you can contact our office at the numbers below:
South Charlotte: 704-503-8196
Amano, T., & Toichi, M. (2016). The role of alternating bilateral stimulation in establishing positive cognition in EMDR therapy: A multi-channel near-infrared spectroscopy study. PLOS ONE, 11(10). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0162735
Chamberlin, D. E. (2019). The predictive processing model of EMDR. Frontiers in Psychology, 10. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.02267
Hase, M. (2021). The structure of EMDR therapy: A guide for the therapist. Frontiers in Psychology, 12. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2021.660753
Hase, M., Balmaceda, U. M., Ostacoli, L., Liebermann, P., & Hofmann, A. (2017). The AIP model of EMDR therapy and Pathogenic Memories. Frontiers in Psychology, 8. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2017.01578
Hoogsteder, L. M., ten Thije, L., Schippers, E. E., & Stams, G. J. (2021). A meta-analysis of the effectiveness of EMDR and TF-CBT in reducing trauma symptoms and externalizing behavior problems in adolescents. International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 66(6-7), 735–757. https://doi.org/10.1177/0306624×211010290
Oren, E., & Solomon, R. (2012). EMDR therapy: An overview of its development and mechanisms of action. European Review of Applied Psychology, 62(4), 197–203. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.erap.2012.08.005
Author: Alex Washburn
Alex Washburn is a current masters-level student that is pursuing her degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. As an intern at Matone Counseling and Testing, she is looking forward to compassionate collaboration with clients.
Co-Author: Ami Patel, LCMHC
Ami Patel is a bicultural Licensed Clinical Mental Health Counselor in North Carolina. She received a Masters of Science in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tennessee. Ami has been in the mental health field since 2012 and uses a culturally-sensitive client-centered approach. Ami is a “one size rarely fits all” clinician who believes everyone deserves a personalized experience in therapy.