Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy was developed by clinical psychologist Francine Shapiro in the late 1980s. She noticed that she was moving her eyes back and forth as she processed traumatic memories during a walk. After three decades of research on the neurobiological basis and outcomes of this therapy, EMDR is now recognized as an effective and recommended treatment for PTSD by national medical associations and the VA health system.
Our brains normally process and integrate new emotions and memories everyday. Sometimes, for various reasons (you’re too young or the event is too painful, for example) overwhelming experiences get shoved into a box to process later, in a manner of speaking. If they never get processed, they get stuck somewhere like a piece of corn in your teeth, and over time, there may be stacks and stacks of boxes that block your way or trip you up. When you feel ready, EMDR can help you open those boxes and complete the processing.
The mechanism is thought to be similar to rapid eye movement (REM) in dreaming, when the brain processes and integrates the emotional and physical memories for each day. EMDR uses bilateral stimulation to activate both sides of the brain, which can be through eye movement following the therapist’s finger, vibrating hand-held pulsers, headphones with repeating tones, left-right physical movements like tapping or walking. In a manner of speaking, bilateral stimulation, while holding a specific memory in mind, “turbo-charges” the brain to enter this dream-like processing mode to work through the memory in a much shorter time than conventional talk therapy. Usually, one painful target memory is processed and resolved per session. Clients report experiencing a profound transformation in physiological sensations, emotional distress, and beliefs about themselves after the brain has gotten a chance to work through the memory.
The therapy has an addiction protocol and is also useful for processing urges and underlying emotional and physical motivations for substance use. EMDR allows you to process memories without having to tell your therapist all the details, which can be helpful if you are not allowed to disclose details for security reasons or simply don’t want to, for any reason. Sometimes, what you feel cannot even be put into words. It is very much your own internal experience that is transformative, not anything you say or the therapist says.
There are eight stages of treatment, beginning with some prep work (similar to “wax on, wax off” in Karate Kid) to make sure bringing up extremely painful memories can tolerated in a safe and helpful way. Possible side effects can include feeling exhausted, sleeping differently than before (either better or worse, or both), feeling vulnerable or more emotional, and continuing to process after session. Sometimes, you may feel like taking a break from it as you adjust. I compare it to feeling muscle soreness after using the gym for the first time, and as you keep working out, it becomes easier to exercise those muscles.
EMDR may be the experience you have been looking for to transform your pain, anxiety, or depression into the stronger part of who you are and a clearer understanding of where you want to go. If your head has ever argued with your heart about what you should be feeling, EMDR can integrate both parts of you in a meaningful way and help you achieve a sense of resolution and completion.