What Is EMDR therapy?
EMDR was developed by psychologist Francine Shapiro after making a chance discovery that the lateral movement of her eyes reduced the intensity of disturbing material she was dealing with (Shapiro, 1995, p. 2).* Dr. Shapiro spent several years scientifically studying this, and found that bilateral stimulation — whether in the form of eye movements, tapping, sound or other forms — released traumatic material from the brain in a way that made the material workable.
How can EMDR therapy help me?
My primary goal as a therapist is to help my clients uncover the truth about the cause of their suffering so that they can live full and satisfying lives. EMDR therapy s highly effective in alleviating suffering, whether in the form of trauma, depression, anxiety, grief or other challenges.
Trauma and other life challenges can lead to the “fight, flight or freeze” response, and EMDR helps release traumatic images, transforming them into memories that are no longer getting in the way of a happy life. In addition to this physiological response to trauma, people experiencing trauma or other life challenges develop negative self-beliefs (such as “I do not deserve love, “I was at fault” etc). The beauty of EMDR is that it works on a cognitive level as well as the physiological level, not only facilitating the release of intrusive images from the brain, but also allowing the individual to replace negative beliefs with positive ones (such as “I deserve love”, “I did the best I could”, etc.). EMDR also works on a somatic level, with the therapist guiding the client to feel the intrusive images and negative beliefs in the body, thus further facilitating the transformation of the images into non-intrusive memories, and also transforming the negative beliefs into positive, useful ones. Therapists need to be trained to practice EMDR, and follow a standardized protocol in EMDR work with clients.
Is EMDR therapy only for trauma?
EMDR therapy can help with many difficult life experiences, not just trauma or PTSD. I have used EMDR successfully with clients experiencing depression, anxiety, shame, guilt and grief in addition to trauma and PTSD.
For example, “Bill” came to see me complaining that he was not able to experience joy or passion in his life, and felt that nothing he was doing had any meaning. Bill had not suffered any recent crises that would account for his depression and despair, and on the surface, his life looked quite successful. However, Bill was unable to experience any joy, passion or satisfaction from his accomplishments and activities, saying that he had a “nagging feeling that something is missing.”
After several months together, Bill acknowledged a deep fear of expressing his emotions, saying, “what if I express myself and no one accepts it? In addition to Bill’s fear of rejection if he expresses himself, he came to realize his deeply held belief that “If I were a good enough person, my life would have more meaning and joy.” I believed then that EMDR would help forward Bill’s journey of self-discovery. Bill agreed to give it a try.
After some initial exploration, we discovered that the negative belief that was driving Bill into depression and despair was “I am insignificant” and the positive belief he wanted to have instead is “I matter.” Through the EMDR process, Bill discovered that he has spent an inordinate amount of time trying to avoid his feelings and be “perfect.” He uncovered some old experiences that led him to feel ashamed. After processing the disturbing feelings, Bill discovered that truest positive belief for him was “I forgive myself.” Bill said he had a tremendous sense of relief about this, and he felt more appreciation for his life. I encouraged Bill to use “I forgive myself” as his mantra when he felt the tendency to retreat behind his curtain of shame. With his newly gained tools, Bill not afraid or ashamed to meet the challenges of life that lie ahead.
How can EMDR therapy help me with my difficult grief?
EMDR therapy is highly effective in processing traumatic grief, which can occur after a sudden, unexpected death, or to help relieve intrusive images that are getting in the way of a healthy grief process.
For example, “Carol”, the mother of two small children, came to see me complaining of ongoing distress after the death of her husband nine months before in a motorcycle accident. As the anniversary of her husband’s death approached, Carol found it difficult to sleep, being awakened by intrusive images of Bill lying in the hospital bed, her shock when she learned of his condition, and her decision to stop life support. The negative belief that that most impacted Carol was her belief that her husband’s death was her fault because she had a premonition that he would be in an accident, and she did nothing to prevent it. After only two EMDR sessions, Carol was able to replace her negative belief “I was at fault” with the positive belief “I did the best I could.” She reported that she still, of course, experienced memories of her husband’s death, and said she was very pleased that that they were no longer intrusive, and that she could feel sadness without guilt. Carol was thus finally able to process her grief and loss in a healthy way.
I’m afraid that EMDR might re-traumatize me. Does this happen?
Because of my skill and experience working with EMDR, I have not had any instances where the client left my office feeling re-traumatized. I work with my clients to make sure they feel enough safety and trust with me to process their traumas or other difficult challenges. I assess how ready a client is for EMDR very carefully so that they are sufficiently grounded in their bodies for EMDR therapy. For some clients, this might take two or three sessions together, whereas for others who have had severe trauma, it may take many more sessions to be sufficiently grounded and feel safe in my office and trust with me. I never push a client beyond their capacity, and provide great tools for working with anxiety and trauma along the way. For some clients, this might be enough.
*F. Shapiro. (1995). Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing: Basic Principles, Protocols and Procedures. New York: Guilford Press.