Transcend Trauma with EMDR: Energy Psychology Helps Resolve Painful Memories
Jan 06, 2017 06:52PM
By Stacy Raymond
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a quick, effective energy psychology technique used for resolving painful memories. EMDR is a mysterious name for a technique discovered accidentally in 1987 by Francine Shapiro, PhD. She was upset one day, went for a walk, and found it soothing to scan her eyes back and forth across the horizon. After the walk, she noticed she was no longer upset; she decided to formally study and standardize what she had experienced. Knowing that we process issues during REM (rapid eye movement), or dream sleep, Shapiro hypothesized that by moving the eyes back and forth during the wake state, the same natural healing tendency of the psyche was being activated while simultaneously focusing on an upsetting memory.
EMDR helps to access and activate the intrinsic healing mechanism of the mind. Unlike talk therapy, EMDR is a way of neutralizing even the most embarrassing or overwhelming memories without discussing or dwelling on the details. It’s not uncommon for people to dodge seeking help in order to avoid feeling shame or emotional overwhelm so EMDR is a good option for those who do not want to or cannot discuss the details of a painful memory.
How it Works
When a person experiences an upsetting event, they enter a state of fight or flight and the body releases cortisol and adrenaline. The traumatic memory is laid down in a raw and fragmented form; it remains under the command of the emotional brain, or limbic system. Disjointed images, smells, sounds and sensations are recognized as part of the incident, but do not congeal into a coherent story. The irritation remains in undigested form in the mind, almost like a “splinter” in a finger. EMDR essentially removes the “splinter”. Alternating eye movements stimulates both hemispheres of the brain, activating the cortex, which holds a lifetime of wisdom and positive experiences. The emotional brain settles down as the memory is reorganized, consolidated and put into perspective for the first time. EMDR helps the client become unstuck and continue processing the memory until resolution, which is attained when the client no longer reports emotional distress while recalling the incident.
It was discovered later that other forms of bi-lateral stimulation (BLS) were just as effective as alternating eye movements. If a client is not comfortable with eye movements, they may wear headphones and listen to alternating tones, or hold tappers that buzz left and right. Two other hypotheses then emerged to suggest why EMDR works: desensitization and dual attention. When a soothing back and forth stimulus—think of a baby in a cradle—is repeatedly paired with an upsetting memory, the disturbance is eventually neutralized. Lastly, when a client is maintaining dual attention simultaneously on an internal upsetting memory and an external soothing stimulus, the mind begins to distinguish the two events. One is safe and calming, happening now, while the other was unsafe, disturbing and happened in the past. Resolution occurs when the client fully realizes, “That was then, this is now, and I’m safe now.”
Much faster than talk therapy, EMDR typically takes about three sessions to work through a single traumatic memory in an otherwise psychologically healthy adult. Therapy with adults who suffered chronic abuse as children understandably may require many more sessions. Whereas some forms of therapy —such as cognitive behavioral therapy and exposure therapy—require a client to repeatedly discuss and/or write about the details and their feelings pertaining to a traumatic incident, EMDR proves to be less humiliating and overwhelming for clients. Discussion is particularly uncomfortable if the trauma involves sexual abuse, rape, witnessing a murder or military combat. The client’s dignity and need for control are respected as they are given the option to discuss the details or simply give it a title, such as “the bathroom incident”.
First, the client chooses which form of BLS feels best (eye movements, audio tones, or the hand-held tappers). Next, a “safe place” is established whereby the client thinks of a place they feel calm and stress-free. (Therapy is not effective if the client does not feel safe and grounded.) Then a “target” memory is chosen by the client. It is up to the client either to describe or to simply think about the worst part of the incident. They are then asked a series of questions including what emotion they are currently feeling, where in their body they feel the emotion, how intense do they rate the emotion from 1-10, and what negative belief do they have about themselves regarding the incident. It is not uncommon for someone to believe, “It was my fault,” or “I should have stopped it from happening”. As the client thinks of the worst part of the memory, the therapist offers sets of BLS that last one to two minutes. The emotion and quality of the scene quickly begin to shift away from being raw and upsetting. Once the memory is desensitized, it will no longer present itself as an intrusive images, sounds, nightmares or flashbacks. It has been reprocessed and filed in the cortex as “something bad that’s over now.” Spontaneously a positive belief emerges, such as, “I did my best,” or “I’m safe now”. The client has a renewed sense of empowerment.
EMDR is known to successfully treat PTSD, panic disorder, anxiety, depression and many other conditions. It effectively alleviates unpleasant memories, big or small. EMDR can help free a person from the negative feelings and beliefs that haunt them and erode their self-esteem. In a sense, EMDR is “organic” because the mind’s natural healing tendency is activated with BLS and the therapist allows it to safely unfold to resolution without interfering.
It is important for all therapists to monitor the effect of job stress on their own emotional and physical well-being. Due to their tendency to be highly sensitive and empathic, therapists are quite vulnerable to the impact of the upsetting material clients bring to them. It may be in the therapist’s best interest to seek a brief course of EMDR therapy for themselves as well in order to remain healthy, grounded and present for traumatized clients.
Practicing EMDR requires proper training. For a list of trained therapists and/or to access the wealth of research supporting EMDR, go to EMDRIA.org.