Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing
EMDR, or Eye Movement Desensitization & Reprocessing therapy, is a powerful and effective form of treatment for many of the issues that might bring a person to counseling. (And yes, it is possible to participate in EMDR through virtual/telehealth sessions.)
We learn from past experiences through associations and conditioning (for example, in the famous experiment by Pavlov, dogs associated the ringing of a bell with getting food, so that eventually they would begin salivating when they heard the bell- watch a video explaining this process in more detail). We learn not to touch a hot stove after being burned one time. In the same way, under normal circumstances, our brain is able to process our daily experiences and help us learn important lessons about life.
However, when our experiences include highly stressful occurrences (whether it is a single traumatic event like a car accident, or ongoing daily stressors like being yelled at by a harsh caregiver throughout childhood), our brain is not able to process these experiences the same way. Our systems are affected by the adrenaline and cortisol (“stress hormones”) released during the experiences, so these memories end up being stored in a different area of the brain together with the same intense emotions, sensations, sights, sounds, and smells.
Because these memories have not been “processed” into the normal life lessons and associations that our normal daily experiences produce, they can create “symptoms” later in life- a few examples are nightmares, flashbacks, anxiety, phobias, low self-esteem, intense anger, dissociation, substance use, or difficulty trusting other people.
Many of these symptoms continue because their original “cause” may be unprocessed stressful past experiences.
The theory behind EMDR is that, much like the body is designed to heal itself of physical injury with the right conditions (e.g. a broken arm will heal over time after being set in a cast), the brain will also heal itself of experiential injuries, or painful memories, when provided with the conditions to do so. EMDR can help provide the brain with the right conditions to process those memories and use them in a more helpful way.
EMDR seems to work by utilizing back-and-forth movements of the eyes (similar to what happens in REM “dream” sleep when we process the events of the day) to help the brain make connections between the “emotional part” where the stressful memories are stored and the “rational part” where we learn and make decisions.
During short sets of back-and-forth eye movements*, you are encouraged to mindfully notice the thoughts, feelings, and body sensations connected with a memory. Between sets, you have a moment to breathe, re-center yourself, and express any new connections that arise. The result is new learning, lowered distress, and reduction of “symptoms” associated with that memory. In other words, your own brain does the healing it needs while your therapist provides you with a supportive space to help you process your experiences.
Because this approach is so effective, treatment can often be completed in a shorter time span than “traditional” talk therapy.
EMDR was developed in 1987 by Dr. Francine Shapiro after a chance observation that looking up through the trees during a walk in the park helped her feel better while thinking about an upsetting thought. After more than 30 years of research, EMDR is considered a powerful evidence-based treatment for PTSD, and many studies have shown its effectiveness for treating other conditions.
To learn more about EMDR and how it could help you, visit the EMDR International Association website!
Explanation of EMDR adapted from:
Shapiro, F. (2018). Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy:
Basic principles, protocols, and procedures (3rd ed.). New York, NY: The Gilford
*In addition to eye movements, other forms of back-and-forth processing can be used during EMDR sets, such as hand-held alternating “tactile pulsers” (that vibrate like a cell phone), headphones that deliver left-to-right tones or music, or even tapping on your knees with the therapist’s direction.