What is EMDR Therapy?

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If you’re struggling with trauma, you might consider checking out EMDR therapy. This unique therapy helps you process traumatic memories.

EMDR — or eye movement desensitization and reprocessing — was originally developed for patients with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Often, people with these experiences have triggers that can cause them to relive their most frightening moments. For example, a war veteran may struggle with fireworks on the Fourth of July, with each blast making them feel like they’ve returned to combat.

With EMDR, patients can halt that trigger-reaction to stressful past events. With a therapist’s guidance — unfortunately, this isn’t something you can DIY — you can re-process that stressful past experience, eventually bypassing the anxiety and fear associated with that memory. Essentially, just like with physical wounds, you’re building a protective barrier over emotional pain.

How Does EMDR Work?

When you first describe EMDR, it sounds a lot like traditional therapy: you talk through painful memories and learn how to live your life despite the sting of the past trauma. But compared to talk therapy, EMDR is singular. Your therapist will use “dual attention stimulation” or “bilateral stimulation.” Often, this entails a light bar that encourages you to look back and forth or hand-held buzzers that focus your attention alternatingly on your right and left hand.

Whichever method they use, the goal is to help you access your memories without being consumed by them.

There are a couple hypotheses for why EMDR works:

  • The rhythmic, left-right movement is relaxing. This helps you calm down while discussing difficult memories.
  • It imitates REM sleep. This helps the left and right hemispheres of your brain better communicate.
  • It stimulates parts of your brain designed to enhance information processing. This helps you analyze your memories.
  • Dual attention stimulation initiates the “orienting response.” This helps you pay attention to novel stimuli — meaning you can focus on your present surroundings and your past.

Does EMDR Work?

So we’ve discussed what EMDR is — but does it actually work? For patients with PTSD, the answer is yes: Studies have shown it can reduce symptoms in 78 percent of patients, and it may even be better than medicine. But outside of PTSD, researchers are a little less enthusiastic about the treatment. It’s definitely better than “no therapy,” especially for panic disorder and anxiety related to public speaking.

But anecdotally, many people have found that EMDR helps them push through painful memories that contribute to their PTSD or anxiety — and the same may be true for you. If you’re interested in trying EMDR therapy, make sure to look for a clinician who is certified by the EMDR International Association. They have the experience necessary to help you work through your trauma.

What Should I Know Before I Go?

You might be nervous before starting EMDR therapy, and that’s okay! Starting work with a new counselor — especially one using such a unique method — can be frightening. But there’s no need to be anxious about what will happen during your appointment.

Here’s what you should know beforehand.

EMDR might trigger strong emotions

Remembering reliving traumatic situations can invoke a lot of powerful emotions, from fear to stress to panic. All of this is normal, and your therapist won’t be surprised or upset if you freak out or start to cry. Accept your feelings as they come, and don’t pass judgment on your experience. Healing takes time.

Dual attention stimulation can feel strange at first

Whether your therapist uses lights, hand-held buzzers or some other method to induce bilateral stimulation, there’s no denying it can feel a little…odd. Casting your eyes back and forth is therapy? Weirdly, yes! Needing time to get accustomed to EMDR is perfectly normal.

Your mind might wander

You may go into therapy thinking you’ll talk exclusively about one traumatic event. But suddenly you’re remembering everything unusual or uncomfortable that’s ever happened to you. You’re talking about experiences from childhood, or high school, or college — and no, your therapist doesn’t think anything is wrong with that. Expect your mind to wander, and feel free to follow where it goes.

If you’re struggling with unresolved trauma, and have tried other solutions with limited success, EMDR can be a fantastic alternative. A certified EMDR counselor can help you process difficult memories so you can start living your life sooner.

Published by

Jamie Wiebe

Contributor