EMDR - Helping the Brain to Leave the Past Behind
What is EMDR? EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing – a long name for one of the most powerful, researched, and effective forms of therapy for people struggling with their past, whether it be a history of trauma, or painful memories that won't go away.
Okay, so what is EMDR like? The first steps of EMDR are integrated into normal talk-therapy. This time is spent building our relationship, helping you to understand the nature of the problem you’re here to work on, cultivating awareness of your body and mind, building your skills for self-soothing, and assessing if EMDR is an appropriate treatment option. This is a crucial part of EMDR work! Our pasts and the emotions that are connected to them can feel overwhelming and insurmountable; this is the work that builds the skills, strength, and confidence needed to safely face and process these moments. This is also the time for you to ask questions, express concerns, and get a better understanding of this powerful treatment. From here, we move on to re-processing. The typical “reprocessing” session has a few parts. We start off by finding a ‘target’ for reprocessing. This starts by looking at what you’re struggling with right now in your life, and exploring similarities between these and other disturbing events in your past. Sometimes we focus on a recent event, but often the work is more effective when we can connect those recent events to similar, earlier memories that act as the “root” of an issue. Then the reprocessing beings. I lead you sets of back and forth (think right-left-right-left) eye movements, or tapping back and forth on your knees or hands, creating what’s called dual-attention stimulation (DAS) of the brain – stimulating both sides of the brain. While we move through a brief set of this DAS, your only job is to notice whatever comes to mind without trying to control or change it. At the end of the set, you tell me what thought, feeling, or sensation came up most recently. Whatever came up becomes your new focus, and we continue more sets of DAS. Everybody experiences this portion of the process a little differently. For many it can include intense emotions and physical sensations, but the outcome is usually the same – relief. We continue doing sets of dual-attention stimulation until the memory feels less disturbing, and then use DAS to further integrate the once-disturbing memory with new positive associations.
So how and why does it work? When we experience a trauma or intense emotional experience, it overwhelms our brain. The brain panics and starts shutting down the part in charge of our intellectual and complex processing (prefrontal cortex). The result is that this overwhelming memory is stored in a raw and unprocessed form in the brain and doesn’t get integrated into our memory timeline. This is why remembering a trauma can feel like you’re reliving it all over again – the images, sounds, smells and feelings haven’t changed or faded because they weren’t processed like other memories. DAS helps the brain to resume normal processing and reintegrate this memory in the larger memory stream. Research has shown literal changes in the neurological patterns of brain activation during DAS. In other words, we can actually see the changes as these traumatic events are getting “unstuck” and re-processed / integrated into the cognitive level of the brain. After a successful session people describe still being able to remember what happened, but it feels more distant and less disturbing.
How fast are we talking? Typical sessions last 60 minutes, and factors like the type of problem, life circumstances, and number of target memories are factors in determining how many sessions may be needed. While therapy at Man.Kind typically goes beyond treating wounds from the past, EMDR is generally considered one of the fastest therapies for trauma treatment, as well as being helpful for anxiety, grief, depression, and more.
You mentioned research? Approximately 20 controlled studies (and more all the time!) have investigated EMDR, and consistently found that EMDR effectively decreases or eliminates the symptoms of post traumatic stress for most individuals. EMDR is designated an effective and/or preferred trauma treatment modality by the American Psychiatric Association, World Health Organization, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and Department of Defense, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and more. It has shown to be effective in a variety of age groups, populations, and across cultures.
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