What is EMDR Therapy?
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a form of therapy specifically dedicated to helping people process and release traumatic memories.
Those who have experienced trauma know its powerful effects over mind, body and soul. Trauma can turn normal life into a nightmare, lacing it with dread and anguish. It is not unusual for the management of trauma symptoms to require a significant portion of one’s daily life energies.
Some trauma symptoms are isolation, chronic anxiety, depression, panic attacks, flashbacks, and disturbing dreams. Additionally, there is high correlation between substance addiction and trauma, as many people find themselves self-medicating in a misguided attempt to get away from, or at least soothe, their feelings of pain and helplessness. Many people find their trauma symptoms to be so disruptive as to represent a barrier to being able to function in the world as others do.
EMDR Therapy was developed by Dr. Francine Shapiro in the late 1980s to help those suffering with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. The methodology has been found to be especially effective at changing the ways that memory is stored in the brain, allowing the trauma-survivor to process and release events of the past so as to be physiologically and psychologically done with them at last.
EMDR works through stimulating repetitive, back and forth eye movements, usually by having someone follow a visual cue back and forth. Sometimes rhythmic audio signals alternating between each ear in a headset, and/or alternating tactile signals from a hand-held buzzer are used instead or in addition.
The purpose of these alternating signals is to create bilateral stimulation, which means that both sides of the brain are stimulated relatively rapidly in a regular, rhythmic way. An EMDR therapist will facilitate this bilateral stimulation while directing the traumatized person’s conscious attention to a disturbing memory, recalling visual or other sense details and any emotions experienced.
Deliberately recalling scenes from a traumatic event while stimulating the brain bilaterally induces a state of processing and release. This has the eventual effect of digesting and letting go of the events. This means that while we are still able to recall the events themselves, the body state of stress and emotions of pain are completed and released from our system, so that the memory no longer has charge to it.
Essentially, the trigger-potential of a bad memory is disarmed through EMDR, so that even if we encounter people, places, or things that cause us to remember our bad experiences, we are no longer launched into a state of nervous system arousal.
EMDR works because trauma is stored at the nervous system level in the way that our brains process stimuli and how they link stimuli to long-term memories we have of past threatening events. If we have a memory that won’t go away, that means we are having trouble processing it, and EMDR can help us do that by supporting our natural memory-processing functions.
How does EMDR work to help with Trauma, PTSD, and Anxiety?
EMDR is helpful for working with trauma, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and anxiety. EMDR provides relief by helping traumatic events to be properly processed in the brain.
By definition, traumatic memories are memories that are linked to intense states of stress in the body, where these feelings of stress have not yet been properly processed and released.
People with anxiety live with chronic fear generally because of unresolved events of their past. Trauma can be related to a single specific event, as is sometimes the case for people given a diagnosis of PTSD, or it can be more generalized and chronic, as a result of many events over childhood or one’s lifetime.
To understand how EMDR helps trauma, PTSD, and anxiety, let’s look at how memories are formed when things go well for us. During non-traumatic memory formation, we go through a few biological steps, that mean we retain a record of the facts of what happened, but release the intense emotional charge out of the body. It can take us a longer or shorter time to be done with our feelings about an experience, but sooner or later the feelings are done and we move on.
In order to release the emotional charge of an event, our body needs to digest and process the intense emotions and body sensations that came up during an event. Strong emotions like fear and anger are created in the body through the actions of hormones and neurotransmitters, which are sent into the body to assist the body to prepare for dealing with danger.
Once danger passes, the body will naturally want to release those chemicals out of the body and come back to neutral. That’s because these chemicals are actually toxic to the body and are only meant to be used for dealing with danger, so once safe again, the body will seek to release them.
To come back to normal, however, the brain must decide that safety has indeed been reestablished, and that the chemicals aren’t needed right now anymore, because it’s no longer necessary to fight, run away, freeze, or appease someone.
This is where the trouble lies, that people who have trauma struggle to experience a return to the state of safety.
EMDR assists people who are struggling this way by inducing a specific type of brain activity that takes place naturally on its own during processing and releasing. This helps us get to the point where we can think of events in our lives, but are able to remember those events without getting flooded by involuntary emotional recall of what it felt like at the time. In other words, we bypass the part of our brain that is saying it’s not safe to let go, and support the brain to process the experience for letting go of it, anyway.
Trauma is not found in specific events themselves, but rather in the bodies and nervous systems of those who react to those events. People vary in their reactions to shocking, overwhelming events, but in most cases, people are able to get over shocking events with support and time.
What makes people with trauma different is that they are not able to find a way to process the intense sensations of fear, dread, rage and/or overwhelm, and these get stuck in the body. If the sensations that rightfully belong to a specific event that is long over live on in the body, we call that trauma.
The problem with this is that whenever something reminds us of our trauma, our brains and bodies will again react as though the same event is happening again. This makes it very hard to tell the difference between the past and the present. People with trauma then live in fear of situations which can trigger their trauma.
EMDR is a very powerful tool, therefore, because it can stimulate us to restart our emotion-processing so that it works naturally once again.
What are the benefits of EMDR Therapy
There are very strong benefits linked to EMDR Therapy. Because EMDR is a modality that works to heal traumatic memories, it is particularly recommended for treating post-traumatic stress disorder. If you have been given a diagnosis of PTSD, EMDR is something to seriously consider for reprogramming your brain and nervous system to the point where you are no longer at the mercy of events from a painful past situation or shock.
Even if you have not been formally diagnosed with PTSD, but you know you have trauma from your past, EMDR can be enormously helpful. The key benefit is to neutralize the emotional charge and distress linked to memories, changing those memories from being active on the body (creating feelings of high stress every time they are recalled, or triggered), to essentially having no strong negative effect on us anymore.
EMDR is an effective method for “getting over something”, by allowing us a pathway for processing an event so that we can retain the learnings but let go of the bad feelings themselves.
Even if you do not identify as particularly traumatized, you may like to consider the benefits of a course of EMDR treatment. Research into the role of trauma in human consciousness suggests that many other types of suffering come to exist because of trauma, at their root. Mental health disorders like anxiety, depression, as well as behavioral problems like addiction, eating disorders, and self-harm, have strong links to trauma according to some psychologists and doctors interested in the field.
EMDR can help heal attachment wounds (such as fear of abandonment), and other impacts that affect our relationships, as well. The net effect of working with EMDR is that people can shift from feeling disempowered and defined by past events, to feeling that they have the chance to transform these events into neutral and even beneficial experiences in their lives.
EMDR leads to feelings of resolution, completion of issues that may have setting us up to fail or haunting our relationship lives for many decades.
Who should consider this type of treatment
People who have post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, should consider EMDR as a way to process and release specific difficult memories. Combat veterans, as well as survivors of attacks and accidents, will benefit particularly because EMDR works relatively swiftly, without having to verbally process events, to help the nervous system release all the pent up, scared, shocked, and disturbed feelings that came about as the result of being exposed to terrifying situations.
For those who struggle with the daily difficulties of managing one’s trauma symptoms, EMDR can be a huge relief, resulting in being able to sleep again, relax, feel pleasure in the body, enjoy activities and relationships, and in general participate in life again.
For a very similar reason, people with addiction should also consider EMDR treatment. That’s because the patterns of addictive behavior are also stored as patterns of processing emotion, thought, feelings and memories in the brain and nervous system.
This is why Villa Kali Ma offers EMDR as part of our holistic integral treatment experience. EMDR will not work if you are not sober, but once you have begun the recovery process EMDR can help speed up the process of healing your mind, body, and soul by helping your nervous system to sort through all that you need to complete and release to be ready to stay sober. EMDR can help you achieve one of the goals you probably had in your addiction, which was to numb the pain of being in your own skin.
People who survived what are sometimes referred to as “adverse childhood events” are also helped by EMDR. People who grow up out of difficult childhoods typically suffer enormously in their adult lives, struggling with mental health problems, relationship and work problems, as well as persistent feelings of emptiness, loneliness, disconnection from others, and low self-worth. If this is you, consider that these troubles can be processed and repatterned through EMDR, without having to get mired in overly discussing or dwelling on past events.
The fact that you don’t necessarily have to process trauma at length verbally in EMDR is important, because in childhood we are harmed at a level that is not necessarily as intellectually developed as we are now. We may be adults, but the hurt parts of us are still children. This is part of why it can be hard to find words to name, relate to, or understand the source of our pain. But EMDR can help sort these experiences into memories that we can better understand and move on from.
EMDR has been shown in studies to have beneficial outcomes, furthermore, in a variety of mental health disorders. Anxiety disorders, depressive disorders, substance use disorders, eating disorders, personality disorders, and even psychosis respond well to the use of EMDR, as it seems that regardless of the type of distress trapped inside a being, EMDR will help a person learn to release it out of their experience.
EMDR Therapy options
Villa Kali Ma offers EMDR as a part of our treatment program for women with addiction, so you will be able to benefit from EMDR’s powerful benefits as you set out on your recovery journey with us. EMDR is also offered in clinics and treatment centers as well as by private practitioners in the community.
If you are beginning EMDR outside of an addictions treatment setting, choose a practitioner with whom you feel safe, and this practitioner should also be certified in the use of EMDR, as it requires some training and expertise.
You can expect your course of EMDR treatment to center around the use of eye movements or other form of bilateral stimulation, such as audio headphones with alternating signals and/or handheld buzzers.
Before beginning bilateral stimulation the EMDR practitioner will work with you to identify which memories to work with first. These memories are the “target” of the EMDR Therapy. The practitioner will then ask you to think about those difficult memories, even focus on summoning up the feelings and sensations, while he or she administers bilateral stimulation to your eyes, ears and/or hands.
As you recall your memories while your brain is being bilaterally stimulated, this may feel a little bit dreamlike, and indeed EMDR is related to how REM sleep also works to help process and release experiences. During an EMDR session you may have different associations, forgotten memories and images arise. You will verbally communicate with the practitioner about what you’re experiencing, pausing at certain places to rate how strong your sensations of discomfort are.
You will be guided into a relaxed, almost trance-like state, similar to hypnosis, and to then recall the pure, raw data of your sense memories while in that tranquil state. The state of deep relaxation is essential to the healing, because it will help you access the stored sense memories and experiences, as well as assist you to process the disturbance you felt at the time of the original event.
The end result of EMDR therapy is that you will still have access to your memories, but you will be able to think about them and still experience peace, safety, relaxation, and self-love when you are reminded of those difficult events. The experience of being forever disturbed, broken, or damaged by your past changes to an experience of being resilient, strong, and capable.