What is EMDR?

Could I benefit from EMDR?

Do you have a “cringe” compilation of perceived errors that you have made that play on repeat in the back of your mind? Is it hard to let prior perceived mistakes or traumatic experiences “go” leading to anger, resentment, depression, or anxiety? If the answer to either question is “yes,” it is likely that EMDR therapy can bring relief.

EMDR, or Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, has become a buzzword in the therapy world in recent years, but what exactly is it? Initially, EMDR was created in the 1980s by Francine Shapiro to initially target trauma. Since then, EMDR has also been proven to be effective with anger, depression, anxiety, OCD, etc.

EMDR is based on the idea that unwanted life experiences varying from “cringe’ moments of embarrassment or regret to horrific trauma can become non-adaptively coded in your brain, which can lead to symptoms, such as depression, anxiety, anger, difficulty trusting self and others, etc,. EMDR uses bilateral stimulation, such as side to side eye movements, to mimic your sleep REM cycle when memories are typically processed. Research demonstrates that this process changes the way that memories are stored in the brain and decreases the symptoms, reactions, and feelings of distress caused by the prior distressing event(s). Oftentimes, someone can find relief from symptoms in just a few sessions.

So how does EMDR actually work in practice? EMDR uses an 8 phase treatment model that is guided by the therapist.

How do you “do” EMDR?

The first step in treatment is gathering client history, or making a list of primary events from childhood to present that had an impact on the client and continue to cause some level of distress or pain. The goal in this step is to identify experiences that are impacting the client’s beliefs about himself/herself.

The second step is preparation. EMDR can be difficult as you are thinking about distressing memories, beliefs and emotions, so it is important to have calming techniques to help ground yourself during and after a session. Your therapist will demonstrate specific evidence-based calming techniques that you may utilize within and outside of sessions to better manage anxiety, distress, or other unwanted emotions.

The third step is assessment. In this phase, you start to target a specific distressing memory. Your therapist will help you build an image of the memory, as well as negative self-beliefs in relation to it. You will rate on a scale of 1-10 how distressing the memory is. You will also come up with replacement positive beliefs about yourself that you would rather internalize than the negative self-beliefs related to the memory.

Step 4 is desensitization. In this step, bilateral stimulation (BLS) is used to target the chosen memory. By engaging in BLS through side to side eye movements while thinking about the distressing memory, your therapist will ask you to re-assess the intensity of the memory.

Once the intensity significantly decreases, you will move to step 5, or installation. Here, you will engage in BLS while focusing on the replacement positive self-beliefs from step 3.

In step 6, you will do a body scan where you can notice any lingering sensations and feelings related to the memory. If some negative feelings or sensations are identified, the therapist will use bilateral stimulation to lessen these symptoms.

Step 7, or closure, is typically used when a session has to end before the distressing memory is resolved or fully processed. You will utilize calming techniques demonstrated and led by the therapist here.

Finally, in step 8, or re-evaluation, you will check-in to make sure that all negative emotions and self-beliefs have resolved and that the positive self-beliefs are still present.

It is not uncommon to feel stuck in therapy, but it can also feel very frustrating and discouraging. With the research and evidence demonstrating the effectiveness of EMDR, it can be worth trying something different. Therapy is a place for you to feel safe to face the hard things, and EMDR can do just that.

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Mindfulness and EMDR: How They Can be Used Together