Eye-Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing
EMDR is a therapy that was developed in the late 1980’s in the United States. It was first used with combat veterans with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, but has quickly come to be useful in eliminating all symptoms associated with stress and trauma, including: panic attacks, intrusive thoughts, anxiety, phobias, depression, over-reactive anger, worrying, disturbed sleep, and PTSD symptoms, such as flashbacks.
EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, but it actually has nothing to do with the eyes. It’s a therapy where you think about something that bothers you (like a traumatic memory or current stressful issue) while you receive a form of bilateral stimulation. This means that stimulation is applied to the brain in alternating fashion. Bilateral stimulation can be done effectively through moving your eyes back and forth while following my hand or a light as it moves in front of your face. This stimulation can also be achieved by alternating taps on your knees or by pulsing sensations in your hands.
The idea is that traumatic memories sometimes get ‘stuck’ in the information-processing system of the brain, along with the emotions and even the physical sensations that went with the original experience. When something bad happens, it happens first to the body, then the emotions kick in, and then you start to ‘reprocess’ the event- you think about it, sleep on it, get support, time passes etc. At the end of the reprocessing, you can still remember the bad event, but it no longer bothers you- I’m sure that you can think of bad things that have happened to you in your life, and you still remember them, but you have peace with them. That is an example of the brain working the way it should. But sometimes this reprocessing get’s stuck, and the event is held in memory along with its emotional and physical content. This is where EMDR is helpful, as it “desensitizes and reprocesses” the difficult memory or issue until you have peace with it.
We don’t know exactly what is happening in the brain during EMDR, thought it seems like it’s related to what happens in your brain when you’re in the dream, or REM, state of sleep. REM sleep actually stands for ‘rapid eye movement’, as your eyes move back and forth rapidly while you’re dreaming. Though the purpose and meaning of dreams is not fully understood, it appears as though it is vital for consolidating and integrating material in the brain. It appears that EMDR is an accelerated, conscious version of REM sleep.
During an EMDR session, you think about the issue or traumatic memory and we do a number of ‘sets’ of bilateral stimulation. It’s useful to use the metaphor of sitting in a movie theatre watching your memory as though it was on a screen. You are sitting in the present, but if emotions and upsetting feelings come up, it’s like it’s a movie. All you have to do is notice and let it go by. Your brain is going to take you wherever it needs to go. You need to know that you may experience intense emotions, both during EMDR and also perhaps between sessions. This can be difficult and tiring emotional work and you may need to take really good care of yourself during your EMDR treatment.
Adapted from Barbara Horne’s “What is EMDR?”
See https://emdrcanada.org/emdr-defined/ for more information.