Picture this: You’re looking online for some kind of therapy or treatment that might help you deal with some difficult past experiences that are sticking with you. You’ve thought about therapy and are interested in trying it, but there are so many acronyms and complex treatment names coming up that you’re feeling overwhelmed. One that keeps popping up is called EMDR or Eye-Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing therapy. You're probably thinking “What the heck is that? Eye-movements processing, what?!” Eventually, you get fed up with the psycho-babble and you close Google.
Sound familiar? Well, you’re not alone! Many types of psychotherapy can seem complicated and foreign when we first look into them, especially when they aren’t explained in a simple way. In this blog, I’m going to break down what EMDR really is, how it works, and the evidence supporting it. I hope this information will help you figure out if EMDR is something that could help you in your therapy journey.
What Is Eye-Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), Really?
EMDR stands for Eye-Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. This is a long title, but let’s break it down.
EMDR was discovered accidentally in 1987 by American Psychologist Francine Shapiro. She had been feeling anxious and decided to take a walk in the park to improve her mood. Shapiro started noticing that as her eyes were moving back and forth looking at her surroundings, she began to feel better. She wondered if the eye movements had a desensitizing effect and were responsible for decreasing the negative feelings she had been experiencing. She decided to test her theory and she discovered that other people experienced the same phenomenon she did when using eye movements and bilateral stimulation (stimulating both sides of the body).
After conducting many studies, Shapiro created a standard procedure for this and initially called it Eye-Movement Desensitization (EMD). With decades more research and supporting evidence, we now have modern EMDR- an internationally acknowledged and recommended therapy that has had a significant impact on millions of individuals.
What Is Trauma: The Sandwich Example
Typically, EMDR is used to treat those who have experienced trauma and/or have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
To better understand how trauma impacts us, we can use the analogy of the digestive system. Normally when we eat, our teeth break down the small bits of food which then travel to the stomach where they are broken down. The nutrients our body can use are absorbed and the rest is disposed of. Imagine now that you are eating a sandwich wrapped in plastic (plastic = trauma) and you are eating many of them quickly. The plastic-wrapped sandwiches are too difficult for your stomach to digest, so there are plastic wrappers stuck in your system that keep getting brought up or irritated whenever you eat.
Trauma impacts the brain similarly. Normally, our brain accepts the adaptive (“good” or useful) parts of memories and processes the rest so they don’t continually bother us. If someone finds an experience to be too intense/distressing or there are too many difficult experiences in a short period of time, the brain has trouble adapting and ends up storing the painful memories along a neural network. As a result, these memories get continually activated or triggered by other experiences in our lives and make living more difficult (e.g., flashbacks, nightmares, feeling on edge, relationship difficulties, etc.).
How Can EMDR Help?
Although there are multiple theories on why EMDR helps process trauma, there is continued evidence that it does in fact reduce negative emotions and traumatic memories. One of the main theories for its effectiveness is that EMDR works by initiating a competition between where the brain store stores sensory information and working memory (where we keep information we need to complete tasks and function). If you recall a memory while moving your eyes back and forth or tapping both sides of your body, your brain has to split its resources. This can make the memories or images less vivid and allow you to feel more distanced from them. The bilateral stimulation may also be helping you to feel more relaxed and your brain might begin to associate the recall of these memories with relaxation instead of pain and negative feelings.
Is EMDR Right For You?
We know EMDR might sound and look kind of strange- there is something silly about moving your eyes back and forth with the guidance of your therapist or alternating tapping your knees/shoulders. However, the team at Balance Psychological has seen the healing effects of EMDR and the positive change it can have on people’s lives. If you have experienced trauma, a difficult event, or struggle with PTSD, EMDR might be worth a try. If you’re interested in EMDR therapy, contact Balance Psychological Services to be matched with an EMDR-trained therapist.
About Balance Psychological Services
Balance Psychological Services is a psychological private practice aimed toward healing, growth, and balance. Our mission is to ensure that every person who walks through our doors feels seen and accepted for exactly who they are, no matter the circumstances they are facing. With offices conveniently located in Stony Plain, Edmonton, and Beaumont, we are here and ready to help you find your balance.
Information provided through Balance Psychological Services' blog posts is meant for educational purposes only. This is NOT medical or mental health advice. If you are seeking mental health advice, please contact us directly at (587) 985-3132.