What is EMDR?
EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing, a very long name for a very powerful trauma specific intervention used in psychotherapy to treat mental health symptoms in both children and adults. Originally developed by Francine Shapiro, Ph.D. in 1987, it is now recommended as an effective treatment for trauma in the Practice Guidelines of the American Psychiatric Association, and those of the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs.
What is Trauma?
First, let’s clarify what Trauma can look like. When we think of Trauma, we often think of major life changing events such as war, natural disasters, or near death experience. However, trauma can also appear in more subtle experiences as described in the above video. These experiences may include peer interactions or embarrassing moments at school, childhood experiences in your home, past relationships, or even living in a home with critical caregivers.
While exposure to a life threatening events is one of the criteria of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), trauma responses can result from non life threatening events, as well. A trauma response can result from any experience that continues to activate a distressing response within you today, even if the experience took place decades ago.
For example, you may find that as an adult you’ve developed a phobia of let’s say, spiders. You hate spiders, you immediately feel a cringe in your stomach, maybe even light headed if you see one in your home or even a picture. You refuse to go camping to avoid any possible exposure to them and you sure as heck avoid that aisle in the pet store.
It is very possible that this may be a result of a negative, earlier, distressing experience you had with spiders. One you may not even recall, but through the reprocessing in EMDR your brain recalls a very specific experience that taught you spiders are to be feared, to be avoided. And, now as an adult, you still have the same fearful, panic response to spiders.
But, through several months of services with your therapist* and successful reprocessing through EMDR, your brain and body are no longer activated by spiders in the same way they used to be. Your initial heightened responses have now decreased significantly or are eliminated entirely. So much so, that the spider that flashed on the National Geographic channel resulted in no negative response in you whatsoever.
*Given the individualized experiences of every client vary significantly, duration of services cannot be determined. We do, however, inform our clients that brief counseling is generally 3-6 months on a weekly basis, and if we are working through more complex issues long term therapy can extend into one year of services or beyond.
How does EMDR work?
First, I want you to imagine your favorite food dish. Imagine the smell of it, the taste, the texture, the people who were around when you experienced this delicious food. Maybe you were at the lake and can almost hear the waves, or maybe you were at your best friend’s house and you can even smell her perfume. You feel happy, comforted.
THIS is the power of our brain and body. When you imagine this food experience, you can almost taste and smell it!
Now, imagine what your brain and body absorbs in disturbing, scary, or uncomfortable experiences?
- When you were in a car accident and ran through all the What-If, Worst-Case scenarios, and still do to this day when you get in a car.
- When you grew up in a household where you weren’t yelled at or abused, but you only received praise and attention from the most important people in your life when you excelled, overachieved, or overperformed in school or athletics. Buy, hey you’re an excellent employee, coach, PTA parent, spouse and volunteer, right?
- When you had Show-and-Tell and were humiliated because you had nothing to bring because your family didn’t have lots of money.
- When your parents gave you everything you needed like a home and food, but also drank, a lot. And you were the one to cover them up, clean up their wine or liquor bottles, and tuck your siblings in when they passed out.
Yeah, trauma happens in day to day experiences too. Think about the thoughts, feelings, scents, touches, or tastes your body experienced in these moments? Because it is all of these things that your brain and body play back when you are triggered (by a scent, or statement, or feeling, or person that reminds your of someone). And, when you are triggered, you can always expect your brain and body to have what some people may perceive as an exaggerated response .
EMDR is a trauma specific intervention used in therapy for adults, child therapy, and teen therapy that helps people recognize these exaggerated responses, sort through your history (yes, we will talk about your childhood), identify root experiences (or what we call Target Memories) and heal the symptoms and emotional distress that are the result of a distressing life experiences, just like any of the above examples.
If you’re interested in the Technical Terms:
EMDR also uses a model known as the Adaptive Information Processing (AIP) model that accesses a distressing memory or cluster of memories in their raw format, and reprocesses it at an accelerated rate through the use of bilateral stimulation (you may notice your therapist tapping, use sounds, or a wand to assist your brain in simulating this response and guide it through reprocessing).
After successful reprocessing, the previous memory that used to activate specific responses in your body now has minimal to no effect on you.
EMDR in Child and Teen Therapy
As with most interventions, EMDR works great with children and teens, but often looks different in its delivery. For children and teens, EMDR therapists often use a combination of expressive arts, play therapy activities, or event art therapy to help facilitate the session and create a safe, engaging environment to utilize EMDR.
What does EMDR treat?
- Anxiety and Depression symptoms
- Trauma responses such as flashbacks, intrusive thoughts you can’t get our of your head, nightmares, night terrors, hyper vigilance, avoidance or person, places or things that remind you of something distressing
- and more
If you are interested in EMDR therapy with one of our therapists, please contact us here.