Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a method of psychotherapy that has been extensively researched and proven effective for the treatment of trauma. It is a powerful method of doing psychotherapy that works on the physiological AND emotional bases of problems to facilitate change. Although EMDR started out as a treatment for trauma, it has been applied to a number of conditions including phobias, chronic pain, and grief. To date, EMDR has helped an estimated two million people of all ages relieve many types of psychological stress.
How does EMDR work?
No one knows exactly how EMDR works. However, we do know that when a person is very upset, such as with a trauma or chronic pain, their brain cannot process information as it does ordinarily. Experiences become "frozen in time," and distressing feelings and memories may be re-lived day after day, without ever seeming to get better. Such memories can have a lasting negative effect on the way a person sees the world and relates to other people, as well as interfering significantly with his or her ability to live life.
EMDR seems to have a direct effect on the way that the brain functions. It has been seen in research that the bilateral stimulation stimulates brain activity normally associated with information processing, such as that which occurs during REM sleep. Following successful EMDR treatment, normal information processing is resumed, as indicated by changes in the pain sensations, and the way the client experiences the pain. It’s almost as though the way the pain is ‘remembered’ physically has changed. Therefore, EMDR can be thought of as a physiologically based therapy that helps a person see disturbing material in a new and less distressing way.
What conditions are treated by EMDR?
EMDR has been most powerful in treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and major trauma such as that experienced by combat veterans, survivors of natural disasters, and victims of violent crime. However, its uses also include “small t” traumas: events that happen in everyone’s lives, but which leave us with the inability to reprocess negative beliefs about ourselves. These include being teased in school, ridiculed by a parent, or getting lost as a child in a public place. EMDR is widely used to treat the following problems:
- childhood trauma
- physical abuse
- sexual abuse
- chronic pain
- obsessive-compulsive disorders
- episodic rage
- panic attacks
- low self-esteem
- performance anxiety
What are some reported benefits of EMDR?
The main benefit of EMDR is the speed at which deep-seated problems can be resolved. One study showed that “EMDR was twice as effective in half the amount of time of standard traditional psychotherapeutic care.”
Unlike many “talk” therapies, EMDR does not require the client to go into detail about the distressing events of the past. While communicating and establishing trust with the therapist is essential, what seems to be equally important to the process is the client registering the event and holding the recall within during the eye movement sessions and the reprocessing. There is no need to analyze the trauma for long periods of time.
EMDR is a multi-faceted approach, not limited to cognitive, behavioral, or somatic methods, but a synthesis of all three and more. The fact that it simultaneously works on mind, body, and emotions may account for its success in taking mere intellectual understanding of the origins of a problem (e.g. “I know I have guilt over killing in the war”) to a holistic resolution involving a bodily release, where post-traumatic symptoms such as intrusive thoughts, nightmares, and anger outbursts clear up.
Since all therapies in some way involve getting to the roots of psychological problems, it is a benefit of EMDR that the trauma that must be re-experienced during treatment is relatively short-lived. Cognitive reprocessing occurs simultaneously with memory recall.