What is EMDR?

EMDR or Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing is a type of therapy we use to help process trauma. Although it has been used by therapists regularly since the early 1990s, it has recently gained new attention, particularly in the past year when Prince Harry opened up about utilizing EMDR to process painful and traumatic memories surrounding the death of his mother, Princess Diana.
I have to admit, when I first heard of EMDR I was very skeptical. My therapist at the time suggested I try it as a way to process my trauma. After doing a quick Google search I decided that this strange type of therapy that Google informed me had something to do with moving my eyes back and forth, was a definite ‘no’ from me.
Fast forward several years, I am in grad school and my professor brings up EMDR in class. Once again, I was pretty skeptical. A classmate mentioned after class that she had done EMDR with her therapist and had experienced immense relief. Fast forward a few more years and I found myself in therapy again, this time specifically to try EMDR. I was shocked that after just a few sessions, my trauma memories felt significantly less troubling. I went ahead and got trained in EMDR and have continued to see clients gain healing and relief from trauma over and over again.

So what exactly is EMDR?

To understand this let’s take a look at what happens in the brain during a traumatic experience. Trauma can be almost anything. I regularly have clients come into my office and tell me they have memories that cause them distress but they hesitate to use the word trauma because they seem to think the term is reserved for someone who has experienced something worse. When I say trauma can pretty much be anything, I mean that the “traumatic” event is not what makes something traumatic or not, it is the EXPERIENCE of the event by the person and how their brain processes the memory that determines if it is trauma or not.
Most of the time our brains work like this; we experience our day, go to sleep, enter into deep REM sleep in which our brains take the information it has collected during the day and moves it from the part of the brain that holds current information into the part of our brain that holds memories. Often during this REM sleep we are experiencing dreaming and our eyes move back and forth under our eyelids.
When we experience a particularly distressing event our brains sometimes choose to “splinter” these memories and hold them in different parts of the brain, maybe our auditory cortex, or our visual cortex, or maybe somewhere else. This is protective. Our brain is trying to help us avoid a repeat of the traumatic event. So for example, if the brain registers something it finds familiar relating to the trauma memory (a trigger) the information will register as a current threat rather than a past event because of where the brain has stored the information. Historically this process has been important in keeping humans alive. Our ancestors would have seen, heard, or smelled something that reminded them of a past trauma (maybe a bear chased them) and it would keep them on high alert to prevent this from happening again. This process is much less helpful in our modern society where we don’t normally need to run from bears.

EMDR tries to facilitate and replicate this natural process in the brain by helping the brain reprocess and recategorize these memories so they are no longer splintered throughout the brain and are instead stored as past events in the brain. We do this by tapping into the brain’s already established system of information processing. Remember the eye movements that happen when we are sleeping? This is called bilateral stimulation. We have found that engaging the body in bilateral stimulation through tapping, eye movements, tones, or other ways can help the brain recategorize distressing memories.

Here are some questions clients tend to ask when introduced to EMDR:
Q: Am I awake? Am I hypnotized? What is my awareness like?
A: You are completely awake and aware throughout the entire process. The goal of EMDR is to recall your past memories without having to relive them. In fact, EMDR is not terribly effective if you are flooded by emotion and find yourself reliving the experience. And anyway, you have already lived through the experience, there is no need to live through it again.

Q: What will I feel?
A: During the process, you may feel emotional and you may feel sensations in your body, but none of these feelings should feel overwhelming or feel like they are too much to bear. Remember, your brain and body engage in a similar process each night when you sleep, it is a natural process.

Q: How long will it take?
A: Each session is usually between 1 hour and 90 minutes. As for the number of sessions, this tends to vary. It can be anywhere between 1 session and 12 sessions of actual reprocessing. In addition there are often several sessions of preparation and resourcing to prepare clients prior to the processing of memories.

Q: Will my memories change?
A: For most people, the content of their memories do not change. It is unlikely that you will retrieve repressed memories or change the memory. Instead, people who have completed EMDR normally recall their memory as just that, a memory, a past event. Individuals may still have emotions connected to these memories but the emotional distress or “punch” has been removed from the memory.

Q: Are there side effects?
A: I usually prepare clients to plan to be tired after a session of reprocessing with EMDR. Some clients experience an increase in dreams immediately after a session. Some find themselves continuing to process their memories after the session. Most side effects are mild.

Q: How do I know if EMDR is right for me?
A: If you are having distressing thoughts, emotions, or body reactions associated with a memory or past event it may be worth setting up an appointment for EMDR. Your EMDR trained therapist will be able to help you assess if EMDR is a good fit.

Living with unprocessed trauma can be distressing. I hope this information on EMDR gives you courage to explore trauma work in your own life!


Blog by: Sara Pogue, MSW, LICSW
Photo by: Sapan Patel on Unsplash