EMDR – Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprogramming, also known as EMDR, is a fairly complicated but highly effective method of psychotherapy. Developed in 1987 by psychologist Dr. Francine Shapiro, EMDR was designed to help individuals heal from unprocessed, unresolved trauma in their past.
EMDR is the most researched trauma treatment to date, and is endorsed by the American Psychiatric Association and the US Department of Veteran’s Affairs and Defense as an effective treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Additionally, EMDR is also used by mental health counselors to treat panic attacks, anxiety, phobias, eating disorders and addictions, among other conditions.
How Emotional Trauma effects the brain:
When disturbing experiences occur, they are stored in the brain as a memory, with all the feelings, sounds, sights and thoughts that accompanied the experience. These memories become stuck, or frozen, like a tight knot within the brain. This knot is called an isolated neural network. Typically, the person is not consciously thinking about the past traumatic event as they go about their day. However, the trauma, accompanied by a negative message about the self, remains seated in the brain.
Emotional Trigger Activates Memory:
When an individual becomes upset or triggered by something in their daily life, the knot in the brain comes to life. This causes the negative thoughts, feelings and emotions of the original traumatic event to surface as well. The individual is brought back to the original traumatic event, and feels the same way as when it originally first occurred. The individual might even experience the same things as experienced at the time of the trauma.
In addition, negative thought patterns are also activated when that knot comes to life. Even if the individual currently has a very happy and fulfilling life, activation of the knot’ will elicit negative thought patterns like feelings of worthlessness, or believing one is unlovable or a bad.
How Does EMDR Work:
EMDR does not erase negative memories, rather it unlocks the negative memories and emotions that are stored in the brain; just as in untying the knot. Once the memory is unlocked, it can be processed and, in a sense, reprogrammed as the individual deals with the traumatic memory. It’s not clear to researchers exactly how EMDR works to integrate the memory with the rest of the brain. It is believed that during the EMDR process, a new neural pathway or connection is made between the isolated neural network (the knot) and the rest of the brain. This new pathway can then eventually replace the old pathway the one that caused the person to feel, think and react in a negative way.
Using EMDR to Change the Negative Message:
EMDR also helps the brain successfully process the negative experience. The individual is then able to realize that he/she cannot change events and experiences that have occurred in the past, but he/she can change how he/she feels about it now. The traumatic memory essentially loses its power over his/her life.
What Happens in an EMDR Session:
Colleen Voronel, EMDR-trained specialist works gently with you, very carefully guiding you to revisit the traumatic incident. Colleen then works with you to stimulate both sides of the brain using techniques like eye movements, tapping slightly above your left and right knee (when appropriate) or rhythmic sounds. This is called bilateral stimulation. When the memory is brought to mind, the feelings and emotions are re-experienced in a new way. The power that the knot held over you fades away. EMDR can enable you to gain a new perspective and self-awareness that helps you choose actions, rather than feeling powerless as you reacts to potential traumatic memories.
Philip Manfield, EMDR Casebook. W.W. Norton & Co. 2003
EMDR International Association
Copyright Lori Nash
How effective is EMDR therapy:
Research shows that EMDR has an 80-90% success rate for single-event traumas in just 1-3 ninety-minute sessions. Clients’ report EMDR is more effective and efficient than the talk therapy they had previously experienced.