Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a powerful method of psychotherapy that works on the physiological and emotional bases of problems to facilitate change. Although EMDR started out as a treatment for trauma (and has been extensively researched and proven effective for the treatment of trauma), it is now being applied to a number of conditions including phobias, chronic pain, and grief. To date, EMDR has helped an estimated two million people of all ages relieve many types of psychological stress.
How does EMDR work?
Exactly how EMDR works is not really known. We do know from memory and brain research that painful or traumatic experiences are stored in a different part of the brain than pleasant or neutral ones. Normally, if we’re troubled by something, we think about it, talk about it, perhaps dream about it and eventually we are able to come to some sort of adaptive resolution. We find a way to come to terms with it in a healthy way, enabling us to put it behind us. When we experience a trauma or very painful event, something happens that interrupts this process. Instead, the traumatic material gets ‘stuck’ in the brain and remains in its original form, with the same thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, smells and sounds. It’s as though it is sealed off from the healthy, functioning brain. That’s why it’s not uncommon for a person who’s had years of talk therapy to find that they still hurt and haven’t changed as much as they had hoped. This is because the dysfunctional material still has not been processed.
What researchers think is that EMDR is able to ‘nudge’ that stored material so that it neurologically reconnects with the healthy brain and then is reprocessed and integrated at an accelerated speed. Once normal information processing is resumed, following a successful EMDR session, a person no longer relives the images, sounds, and feelings when the event is brought to mind. You still remember what happened, but it is less upsetting. The most popular theory as to how this happens is that EMDR creates brain activity that is similar to that which occurs during REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. And it’s during this REM phase (when we dream) that we resolve conflicts, process information and consolidate learning and memory. By creating similar brain activity, while thinking about a painful event, it appears that EMDR is able to help the brain finally process the ‘stuck’ material, enabling the person to arrive at an adaptive solution. The painful event or trauma becomes an unfortunate incident but no longer produces the emotional pain that it did before.
What conditions are treated by EMDR?
EMDR has been most powerful in treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and major trauma such as that experienced by combat veterans, survivors of natural disasters, and victims of violent crime. However, its uses also include small traumas: events that happen in everyones lives, but which leave us with the inability to reprocess negative beliefs about ourselves. These include being teased in school, ridiculed by a parent, or getting lost as a child in a public place. EMDR is widely used to treat the following problems:
Depression, Childhood trauma, Physical abuse, Sexual abuse, Obsessive-compulsive disorders, Complicated grief, Trauma from car accidents, Episodic rage, Panic attacks, Low self-esteem, Relationship problems, Performance anxiety, Insomnia, Chronic pain and others.
What are some reported benefits of EMDR?
The main benefit of EMDR is the speed at which deep-seated problems can be resolved. One study showed that EMDR was twice as effective in half the amount of time of standard traditional psychotherapeutic care.
Unlike many talk therapies, EMDR does not require the client to go into detail about the distressing events of the past. While communicating and establishing trust with the therapist is essential, what seems to be equally important to the process is the client registering the event and holding the recall within during the eye movement sessions and the reprocessing. There is no need to analyze the trauma for long periods of time.
EMDR is a multi-faceted approach, not limited to cognitive, behavioral, or somatic methods, but a synthesis of all three and more. The fact that it simultaneously works on mind, body, and emotions may account for its success in taking mere intellectual understanding of the origins of a problem (e.g. I know I have guilt over killing in the war) to a holistic resolution involving a bodily release, where post-traumatic symptoms such as intrusive thoughts, nightmares, and anger outbursts clear up.
Since all therapies in some way involve getting to the roots of psychological problems, it is a benefit of EMDR that the trauma that must be re-experienced during treatment is relatively short-lived. Cognitive reprocessing occurs simultaneously with memory recall.
For more info, go to the EMDR Institute Inc.