Throughout our lives, we are exposed to various situations that can have a lasting impact on how we view ourselves, others and the world. At times, single or multiple adverse life events (e.g., violent crime, loss of a loved one, childhood abuse) can result in trauma that extends beyond normal stress reactions and, instead, creates a range of uncomfortable responses that can have a lasting negative impact on our overall well-being.
Sometimes, people are reluctant to seek individual therapy to address trauma because they don’t want to talk about the event(s) or commit to attending long-term therapy sessions. The good news is that there is a different short-term therapeutic approach gaining more attention, called Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). Although EMDR has been around since the 1980s, research has demonstrated its success as an effective intervention for trauma with various populations, including military veterans, first responders and sexual abuse survivors. In addition, EMDR has also been used effectively to treat additional issues, such as anxiety/panic attacks, depression and grief/loss, to name a few.
WHAT IS IT?
EMDR is an evidence-based treatment intervention developed by Francine Shapiro, Ph.D. It taps into our physiology to actively unfreeze and neutralize trauma memories. It involves holding the images of an identified adverse life event in mind while simultaneously activating both sides of the brain to adaptively integrate the trauma. EMDR is not a form of hypnosis. It is important to note that during EMDR, clients remain in control, fully alert and wide awake. EMDR is known as a scientifically supported approach, which means that clinicians trained and practicing have a very specific protocol to follow in this treatment method.
HOW DOES IT WORK?
To understand how EMDR works, it’s helpful to understand what happens to the mind when we experience traumatic events. Generally, our minds manage new information and experiences, often without us being aware of it. When significant events occur or when we are repeatedly exposed to such events, our mind’s natural coping ability can be overloaded. This overload can result in the traumatic experience(s) being stuck or frozen with the raw emotions, thoughts and physical sensations unprocessed. Unprocessed memories and experiences get stored in the limbic system of the brain and often elicit an emotional or physical response rather than a verbal or cognitive response. The limbic system stores these traumatic memories in a memory network, and when you experience similar events, it triggers similar emotions and sensations, even if the similar events occur years later. In many cases, a person may even have forgotten the memory, but may continuously experience the associated painful feelings stored in the memory network when triggered by later events.
EMDR functions on the premise that the mind can heal itself naturally, similarly to how the body can heal physical injuries. While this healing process is thought to occur naturally for most circumstances, there are instances in which a blockage or something else stops it from happening. When this occurs, people continuously experience the suffering that is associated with past experiences, like painful feelings. The goal of EMDR is to remove this blockage by activating both brain hemispheres simultaneously, to assist the brain in resuming normal information processing and memory integration strategies. By addressing the blockage, EMDR works to allow separately stored trauma memories to link up with more adaptive and healthy memory networks, so that the disturbance one experiences surrounding the past event is minimized or even eliminated. Many people who utilize EMDR have immediate reductions in their distress levels, and the research shows this is especially helpful for members of the law enforcement community.
WHAT CAN I EXPECT?
EMDR is often conducted in eight phases. In the beginning stages, you may discuss issues or problems with your clinician, but you won’t necessarily have to reveal all details of past traumatic experiences. Instead, clinicians will help you identify negative reactions you are still experiencing and decide which of these are adaptive and which ones need to be addressed. Through the phases, you will also learn additional techniques to help manage the disturbing reactions. Clinicians will guide clients through a process of desensitization. In this stage, clients are asked to keep the memory of a painful or traumatic event in mind while both sides of the brain are activated. This also allows for negative emotions to be fully processed and haunting thoughts, images and emotions to be released. The later phases are focused on reinforcing healthy feelings and beliefs so that when past memories are brought up, clients no longer, or very minimally, experience the negative emotions and disturbances they had at the start of counseling. (This information was adapted from these EMDR sources: www.emdria.org, www.emdr.com and www.getselfhelp.co.uk.)
If you would like to learn more about EMDR and might consider EMDR treatment, you can contact Psychological Services Bureau at (213) 738-3500 to schedule a confidential appointment.