EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) is an evidence-based therapy that helps people heal from traumatic experiences. These experiences can be “Big-T” traumas, like those associated with war, sexual assault, or other horrific events. Or they can be “little-t” traumas, like verbal abuse or the loss of a significant relationship. These traumas often lead to symptoms like anxiety, depression, or PTSD.
When we experience trauma, the memory of what happened isn’t fully “digested”. We re-experience it every time something happens that reminds us of it in some way. We overreact to the new event because we’re still feeling the pain from what happened before. This is sometimes referred to as a flashback, or being triggered. We may know logically that our reaction is unwarranted, but this awareness isn’t enough to change the pattern. The pain from the original event must be healed.
EMDR helps the brain process traumatic memories and fully digest them. It is a mostly non-verbal approach that doesn’t use the logical, thinking part of the brain. The mind can heal itself, much like the body can heal a wound. EMDR involves holding a painful memory in mind while moving the eyes back and forth. It is believed that the bilateral eye movements activate the same brain processes as REM sleep, helping us process things that are too overwhelming for the conscious mind to make sense of. The therapist’s job is to help this natural process unfold with limited intervention.
EMDR is a multiple-phase process that occurs over a period of time. In the preparation phase, you’ll learn emotion regulation strategies like breathing exercises, mindfulness, and positive imagery to make sure any distress you experience remains tolerable. In the processing phase, your therapist will guide you to focus on a mental image of the painful event along with the related emotions, body sensations, and negative beliefs, while at the same time moving your eyes back and forth. Processing continues until recalling the disturbing memory no longer produces any emotional, cognitive, or somatic distress. Later phases of EMDR include installing positive beliefs, scanning for any lingering physiological responses, and re-evaluating the memory to ensure that it indeed has been fully processed.
For “single-incident” trauma, healing can occur relatively quickly, sometimes in just a few sessions. Complex trauma, where the trauma occurred repeatedly and in varying ways, can take much longer.