EMDR Therapy (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing)

EMDR therapy which stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing is one of the most effective forms of psychotherapy available. It was developed by Dr. Francine Shapiro in the 1990’s and has become the treatment modality of choice for resolving trauma. While studying the mind-body connection, Dr. Shapiro discovered quite by accident, that her negative thoughts seemed to dissipate as her eyes moved back and forth while on a walk around a lake. She spent the next 10 years researching and developing EMDR into what it is today. Due to how unusual EMDR therapy is, it has undergone more research testing than any other mental health modality. The research has validated how effective EMDR is at resolving trauma.

EMDR is equally as effective at resolving big traumas, such as a life threatening situation, as it is at resolving small traumas such as feeling rejected by your friends as a child. When a trauma occurs, the memory doesn’t get fully processed by the brain. Which creates dysfunction in the person’s life. Small trauma’s can affect the way a person’s personality develops. A child who feels ashamed at being ridiculed at school may decide that they are not “good enough” and go through life carrying this negative core belief that will affect all their choices. Low self esteem could then trigger unhealthy coping mechanisms, such a numbing the pain with drugs or alcohol. Large trauma’s can be debilitating to the extent of preventing normal functioning. If left untreated, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder can destroy someone’s life. EMDR can neutralize a traumatic memory within a handful of sessions.

EMDR sessions consist of identifying the original trauma and the beliefs and emotions that resulted from the event. Such as a rape survivor, who blames herself for the assault and feels afraid wherever she goes and no longer trusts men. She becomes hyper vigilant and feels anxious being outside her home. Once the target memory has been identified, the client holds the memory in mind while bilateral stimulation of the brain is applied. Bilateral stimulation can consist of eye movements, wearing a headset that alternates sound in each ear, or physical touch or sensation alternating from the right to the left side of the body. The brain then begins to reprocess the memory. At the beginning of the session, most clients will re-experience the disturbing emotions, the sadness, the fear, etc. with intensity. As the process continues, the brain begins to heal itself, by connecting the disturbing memory with rational adult thoughts. Thoughts such as “it wasn’t my fault, I am safe now, I survived” will join with the memory of the trauma.

The working theory behind EMDR is that it mimics what our brain does during REM sleep. That REM sleep is how the brain naturally processes the day’s events, but when something happens is too disturbing, and the brain isn’t able to process it, it gets stuck and is never filed away like a normal memory. It remains on the nervous system and continues to get re-triggered, as if the danger was still present. EMDR allows the memory to be filed away.

All aspects of the trauma as targeted, the physical memories, the thought, the feelings, until the memory feels neutral. It doesn’t erase the memory, but now, when the person thinks of the incident, they no longer have a reaction to it. Because the trauma has been resolved, it is no longer controlling the way a person lives their life or their decision making. The fear that paralyzed them is no longer there. Or the pain that needed to be numbed with drugs or alcohol no longer exists. Because of how effective EMDR is at resolving trauma, it is incredibly helpful at treating addiction and substance abuse disorders, as most addicts have a history of trauma.

EMDR is also effective in strengthening positive thoughts and desired behaviors. Once the negative beliefs have been released, the client focuses on the way they want to feel, on the desired behaviors, and healthy self-esteem. By adding the bilateral stimulation, any remaining blocks to the desired traits can be identified and removed. Once that has occurred, focusing on the positive thoughts, will cause them to expand increasing the client’s self esteem, self confidence, and general positive regard. Someone who genuinely feels good about themselves and confidant in their ability to deal with life isn’t going to relapse.

In addition to this, a new variation of EMDR has recently been developed specifically for the treatment of substance abuse and addiction. Its goal is to neutralize cravings, triggers and other compulsive behaviors connected to the addiction. This Feeling-State Addiction Protocol (FSAP) targets the positive feelings associated with the addictive behavior. For example, in the case of stimulants, the euphoric sensations, feelings of invincibility, would be processed and neutralized. Or with alcohol, often times the memory of the first experience includes feeling connected to a group of people, feeling like you belong (usually as a teenager). So anytime the person feels lonely, they drink alcohol to the feel connected to their world.

EMDR would be used to unravel the beliefs that alcohol use and “belonging” are related. FSAP targets the positive feelings (emotions or physical sensations) associated with using the substance. Once the positive states are disconnected from the substance, the addiction loses its power. The negative self beliefs are also processed, such as the belief that the person doesn’t belong…and the cause of this belief, what happened that made them believe they don’t belong. The goal is to get the client to feel and know that they “belong” and are able to stay connected to their life without any substance. Any intense negative self-images that were created by the addiction are also targeted. Such as shame over how they behaved while they were using or guilt over the pain they caused the people in their lives. It it imperative to heal any emotional or mental wounds that could cause a relapse. The final step is to process any memories of previous failed attempts at sobriety and relapses.

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