No one enjoys remembering traumatic events. But for some people, painful memories aren’t just something from the past. Sometimes the brain cannot process a specific memory, making it feel impossible to leave the event behind and preventing the brain from healing naturally.
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a form of therapy that’s designed to help people escape this painful condition. The science behind EMDR is fascinating, but what’s more important is what it can do for people who are suffering. Here are the basics about what EMDR therapy is and how it works.
Trapped by unprocessed memories
Just as your body has a digestive system to process food, your brain has different parts to help you make sense of the world around you. EMDR International Association explains that one of the things our brains are wired to do is to work through trauma. When an upsetting event occurs, lightning-fast communication occurs between the amygdala, the hippocampus, and the prefrontal cortex.
The amygdala is the part of the brain that sounds the alarm during dangerous moments. The hippocampus does a lot of the heavy lifting when it comes to learning and forming memories. The prefrontal cortex helps understand and regulate emotions and behaviour.
When all these parts of the brain are able to communicate and function well, they have a remarkable capacity to help you through difficult times. All the different parts function together to work through what happened, learn from it, and heal from the experience.
However, sometimes that process is interrupted. Perhaps because of the intense stress of the event, sometimes the different parts of the brain aren’t able to work together effectively. The upsetting event can be large or small, but if the brain isn’t able to coordinate the areas needed to deal with what happened, then the memory isn’t fully processed.
This means that the emotions, thoughts, and physical sensations they experienced during this event remain unexplained in the brain. When something happens to trigger this memory, these feelings and thoughts come flooding back.
These upsetting memories don’t “make sense” for a very good reason. The brain has never been able to make sense of them.
How can EMDR help?
EMDR was created to help people process memories that cause them distress. According to the American Psychological Association, this therapy helps them actually change how the memory is stored in the brain. After therapy, clients still remember the upsetting event, but their reaction to it is much less intense and painful.
EMDR helps the brain process memories using bilateral stimulation. This is sensory input to the brain that comes from both sides of the body. This can be done by the patient tapping their hands one at a time, holding a small device in each hand that vibrates in turn, or moving their eyes from left to right.
There is a large body of research that shows that these gentle forms of stimulation affect how the brain assimilates memories. When a client, guided by a therapist, focuses on the upsetting memory at the same time as having bilateral stimulation, it helps their brain process that memory. The result is that they are able to develop a helpful understanding of what happened and to remember the event with less distress.
EMDR doesn’t just help people who suffer from PTSD. It’s been shown to be effective in many different mental health disorders, including anxiety, panic attacks, depression, dissociative disorders, grief, eating disorders, substance use disorders, and sleep disturbances.
What does EMDR look like?
Most therapists recommend that clients have an EMDR session at least once every 2 weeks, and a total of six to 12 sessions in all. Every client differs in their own unique situation and trauma recovery. Each session is typically 50 minuters. This approach can be used alone or along with other forms of talk therapy, depending on your goals and preferences.
The process begins with the therapist taking the client’s history and talking about what brings them to therapy. This phase of the EMDR Therapy generally takes 1-2 sessions and is an important part of the process since this information is used together with your therapist to plan the treatment and determine goals moving forward. Important components to focus on during the history taking process are (1) – the occurrences from the clients past that have developed the problem, (2) – what present day situations are causing the client distress and (3) – what are the key skills to develop / learn for future healing and overall well-being.
Next, the therapist explains how EMDR works. They walk the client through the bilateral stimulation, explaining the method they use. They will also prepare them with some exercises to help them feel safe if they start to get overwhelmed. During this stage the therapist also teaches and demonstrates a number of relaxation exercises that will be used for any heightened emotional disturbance during or after the therapy session.
In the next phase, the client is asked to think of the memory and pay attention to things such as what they see, what they think, how they feel, and what sensations they experience in the body. The client then expresses a statement of “negative self belief” around the event (i.e. “im not good enough”) and focuses on the memory while undergoing bilateral stimulation. They may share any new thoughts that come up during the memory.
During this process, the therapist helps reinforce a “preferred positive cognition.” This is something the client thinks is true about what happened. For example, someone who has suffered a physical attack may have come away with a negative cognition of “I’m vulnerable” that leaves them feeling in danger even when they’re safe. A preferred positive cognition might be “I’m strong enough to survive.” This doesn’t change their memory of what happened, just how they interpret what happened.
After the client has revisited the memory enough times that they start to feel desensitized to it, and the preferred positive cognition has been strengthened, the next step is a body scan. The client focuses on the sensations they’re feeling in the body. The therapist gives them tools to help them deal with any discomfort they may still be feeling and help them feel safe during the time before the next session. Your therapist will also continually check in with you and determine where the traumatic event feels on a scale to assess progress. Your therapist may also assess for other negative associations around the event and help you process those negative feelings as well, in this way potentially achieving beyond the original goals in your therapy.
Can you do EMDR online?
If you’re interested in pursuing EMDR, but you prefer online therapy, you may wonder if this tool is available to you. It is possible to do EMDR through virtual sessions. Click here for more information about what you should know about this option to decide if it will work for you.
Trillium Counselling offers EMDR
EMDR is a very different approach to therapy, and for many people, it has been life-changing. There is a solid body of scientific evidence to back it up, and we are happy to offer it at Trillium Counselling. If you would like more information about EMDR or to schedule an appointment, please feel free to contact us today.