What exactly is EMDR?
Eye Movement Desensitizing and Reprocessing is an evidence-based psychological treatment approach, which is most commonly associated with processing traumatic incidents. EMDR is unique in that it targets the physiological storage of memory and emotions through bilateral eye movement stimulation. A client will track the psychotherapist’s fingers back-and-forth across their field of vision as they hold a memory, physical sensation, or experience in place, while reprocessing that maladaptive memory into a more positive and healthy belief through multiple sets and sessions.
I haven’t experienced anything traumatic, could I still benefit?
Of course! One of the biggest misnomers around trauma is that it is only something life-threatening or horrific. We have all likely experienced something traumatic; a partner cheating on us with a close friend, a teacher in elementary school criticizing our writing, being bullied, the loss of financial security, a parent’s lack of involvement or affection, etc. Those experiences are known as ‘little t’ trauma in the therapy world. Looking back on some of those experiences, we might not initially consider them traumatic, but that instance conveyed either a negative belief about your self-worth, whether or not you were deserving of love, the ability to trust others, the lack of safety in the world around you; and you have acted upon that message for YEARS gathering evidence of why it is true.
Here is a hypothetical scenario of how that would come to unravel in a therapy session: I may have a 20-something year-old female who is struggling in her current relationship when her partner leaves town for work or visiting family. The client recognizes her reactions seem irrational, but the feelings of abandonment begin to surface. Through the Floatback Technique, we may discover the same feelings occurred when the client’s high school boyfriend lied to her about their relationship creating a story of “I’m not good enough”. Sitting with that emotion, the client then identifies a memory with her father when he criticized her singing voice, days before he left the family and was never heard from again. To a child’s mind, she had paired the inadequacy of her singing voice to her father’s abandonment of the family. The theme, “I’m not good enough”, is highly tied to the client’s perception of her self-worth in relationships and fear of abandonment.
With all that being said, the most evidence gathered towards EMDR’s long-term effectiveness has been gathered from single-incident ‘Big T’ trauma. These are instances where a person believes their life is endangered, whether through accident or assault, or in witnessing a horrific accident. This approach has been highly effective for First Responders, Veterans, and Rape or Incest Survivors who find talking about the incident highly triggering and emotional.
Who benefits most from this approach?
In EMDR, there is less verbal processing or questioning, so those who find talking about ‘Big T’ trauma either triggering or highly unpleasant are able to work through the emotions while instilling positive beliefs in significantly fewer sessions than traditional talk therapy. EMDR has additionally been used in social and specific phobias, psychosomatic pain such as Endometriosis and Migraines, fear of public speaking, addictions, Panic Attacks, and Depression.
In essence, nearly anyone could benefit from EMDR who is interested in pursuing a deeper level of therapeutic processing. The four main categories of Negative Beliefs that we target in our work are; Self-Defectiveness (I’m unlovable, I am worthless, I’m not good enough, I’m a bad person, etc.), Responsibility (I should have done something, It’s my fault, I should have known better, etc.), Safety/Vulnerability (I am not safe, I can’t trust anyone, I am going to die, I can’t protect myself, etc.), and Control (I am not in control, I am helpless, I am weak, I am powerless, etc.). We have all likely experienced one or more of those thoughts, which then turn into the way we view ourself and the way we interact with the world and those around us. In confronting those beliefs and memories and replacing them with a different belief, viewpoint, or experience, we can begin to heal from the damage inflicted by those experiences.
Are there any risks or side effects?
The short answer is that there are no long-term consequences from participating in EMDR with a trained therapist. However, short-term effects such as nightmares or memories resurfacing can occur as traumatic material is explored in therapy. When these take place, the client is instructed to just notice the memory or dream and to write it down to be processed in the next session. Part of our training and process with EMDR incudes creating a coping skill known as a ‘Safe Space’ that is instilled for the client to access either in therapy or in day-to-day life when negative emotions are triggered.
With the eye-tracking movement, some clients who have had eye surgery, wear contact lenses, are prone to seizures, etc. will opt for other bilateral stimulation techniques such as the Butterfly Hug tapping technique or hand-held ‘buzzy’ sticks.
What prompted you to become trained in EMDR?
Through my own meditation and self-reflection over the past few years, I have become highly interested in psychosomatic pain, or how our physical body stores and emanates emotional pain. We all know the old adages of ‘A pain in my neck’, or ‘My stomach is in knots’, but I was staring to find that many current debilitating illnesses, such as Endometriosis, Migraines, Fibromyalgia, and Chronic Pain, had psychological and emotional roots.
At that point I was overwhelmed at what direction to take; there were practices that seemed more attuned to mind-body connection such as Acupuncture, Reiki, bodywork, Massage, and Chiropractic therapy, but those required years of additional training or were beyond my niche. I needed something that would help psychotherapy clients to experience and alleviate psychosomatic pain and I repeatedly saw the benefits of EMDR in my research. The area I serve is considered rural and underserved for mental health services; EMDR would be a critical addition to my practice and to the area!