What is EMDR Therapy? First, "EMDR" stands for "Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing." Translated, this means that EMDR therapy uses side to side eye movements (bilateral stimulation) to help your brain process old "stuck" memories so they become less triggering. A simpler description might be, "A Therapy that Clears the Clogged Up Places In Your Brain."
What's so great about it? Research shows that EMDR is highly effective in healing trauma, including big "T" life-threatening Trauma like an assault or a car accident, and little "t" trauma like bullying, an emotionally abusive parent or social anxiety. Trauma of either kind can create what I think of as neurological knots - places in the brain where feelings are tangled up and stuck. In these places, thoughts, feelings and events (past, present or future) can trigger strong, inescapable thoughts and emotions that are hard to get around. EMDR is a powerful tool to loosen those tangles and get the regular network of thoughts and feelings back on track. I read somewhere once that mental health isn't about always feeling happy. It's about having all the feelings and moving on from each to the next in a timely manner and being able to keep them all in perspective. EMDR helps this happen.
How does it work?
But how does it work? Here are the logistics. A client is guided to think about whatever it is that is triggering for them while experiencing bilateral stimulation (BLS). The BLS "supercharges" their thoughts in those tangled up places so that that those knots are loosened up and thoughts can flow more normally through the brain without triggering strong, debilitating reactions. Just for clarification, bilateral stimulation means stimulating the left side of your body and then the right side, back and forth and back and forth. (This can be done by following something back and forth with your eyes like watching a tennis match, or by listening to beeps in alternating ears via headphones or feeling vibrations in alternating hands via little disks you hold in your hands.)
A few examples
Here are a couple of examples. For most people, seeing a white truck is no big deal and has no impact on day-to-day life. However, if you've experienced a car accident involving a white truck, seeing one might cause you to feel afraid, break out in a cold sweat, send your heart racing, and cause you to avoid driving. These reactions have a profound impact. You might plan your entire life around avoiding driving or be constantly anxious. EMDR sessions can loosen the tangle you have around the accident and put white trucks back in their proper context where they don't dominate your decision-making.
An example of small "t" trauma might be the impact your parents' divorce has had on your ability to engage in healthy relationships. By identifying and reprocessing those memories, the knot of pain involved in thinking about relationships can be untangled and your decision-making about relationships can be clearer. Whatever the tangle is about, it can be loosened. Some people say EMDR helps reduce the "noise" or the "story" or "drama" about things that used to be very hard to deal with.
One of the other benefits of EMDR is that the gains seem to be permanent. In one study, a group of clients with depression were broken into two groups. One was treated with Prozac, and another was treated with EMDR. After several months, both groups ended treatment. The group who had taken Prozac lost their gains without it, but the EMDR group maintained their progress. (The Prozac group was subsequently offered EMDR.)
Another great benefit of EMDR is that is includes the body in therapy. During EMDR sessions, we focus not only on thoughts and emotions, but on feelings in the body as part of the healing process. The brain and the body need to work together to truly heal because we store so many experiences, good and bad, in our bodies. EMDR offers a safe and effective way to do that.
You're the Expert
Finally, EMDR is yet another example of how people are experts on themselves. In EMDR sessions, the mind untangles itself. The therapist doesn't do it - the client does. This is really true for all therapy - the client is the healer and the therapist facilitates and witnesses. EMDR sessions are a constant reminder to me that we are wiser than we know and that with the proper structure and support we can heal and be happier and more productive. It's a beautiful thing to see.