I recently took a training to learn EMDR and thought it would be helpful to write here about it so people who aren’t familiar with the therapy type can learn more. If you’re interested in EMDR as a concept and want to know about how it’s used, the best resource I can recommend is Francine Shapiro’s book “Getting Past Your Past” which describes the discovery of the method and how it’s been applied.
EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. EMDR has been around for a while, there are certainly more in-depth studies and articles that are written which you can look up to understand the mechanics and history of it. Essentially it’s a trauma processing modality that a trained professional can use to get traumatic memories “un-stuck” from the brain.
Here’s an example I like to use when I explain what EMDR does to my clients – Do you remember where you were on September 11, 2001? I can recall being in my 7th grade classroom (I know this ages me, I don’t care if you figure out my age!) and my teacher in the front of the room. I can see the TV in the upper corner of the room with images of the twin towers on it and I can even remember my desk. I personally did not lose anyone in these attacks but it was a profound moment for a lot of us so there is an emotional charge, and those memories are pretty clear in my head. When I went home that day I can remember the carpet of my parents’ house and the headline on the newspaper on the dining table.
Now ask me where I was on December 17th, 2006. I have absolutely no idea. I can’t remember what I was doing, who I was with, and I have to do a little math to remember how old I would have been to guess the setting. I was not in a coma or sleeping all day and I don’t have any neurological reason to not remember that particular day, I just don’t. My memory didn’t bother filing anything away that day.
Traumatic memories stick out to us for survival reasons. If we can recall the details of a traumatic incident with clarity, we can hypothetically avoid them in the future. The problem happens for survivors of trauma when those elements of memory become a barrier to regular life – like the soldier who fears driving due to an explosion while on active duty, or the assault survivor who fears going into parking lots. Sometimes the trauma reminders are broad and they keep us from doing everyday things, like going to certain neighborhoods, or even regular activities such as cooking can be reminders of traumatic incidents.
EMDR works through something called bilateral stimulation of the brain, which means that it’s engaging both halves of the brain at the same time. This works through a number of different methods, the classic one is to have the client follow the therapist’s fingers moving back and forth horizontally while processing the memory. Other options include using physical tapping on either side of the body, musical tones that play in each ear, or small handheld pads that vibrate in each hand, alternating side to side.
There is still some science that is studying exactly why it is that EMDR works, but the basic gist is that if a person recalls a traumatic memory while they are doing bilateral brain stimulation, their reactions to the traumatic memory reduce. Essentially EMDR helps us take that memory out of its storage place in trauma storage (where it has vivid associations and strong emotions attached) and place it into regular storage (where details can still be recalled but are no longer triggering or upsetting in the same way). Some scientists believe that EMDR works like REM sleep – when people are deeply asleep their eyes move back and forth to help them process and file the memories of the day and incorporate information learned.
If you’re interested in EMDR and think that it may help you with trauma, I’d recommend you check on Psychology Today or Therapy Den and refine the search criteria for your zip code, and select EMDR trained therapists. You should get a list of therapists who practice this, and you can contact them to see who may fit your needs.