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What is Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy (EMDR)?

Who Can EMDR Help?

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) Therapy is a safe and incredibly effective treatment for people with a negative self-image. People who have been diagnosed with any form of anxiety, depression, obsessive disorders, panic disorders, and even those struggling with relationship difficulties. From Anxiety Disorder to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder to betrayal trauma, anyone with negative beliefs about themselves can benefit from EMDR. The goal is to replace judgmental, rigid thoughts with adaptive, growth-oriented beliefs. For example, imagine replacing the thought "I'm not good enough" and with "I'm okay as I am" and truly believing it. Now, imagine replacing a common trigger with a feeling of calm. With EMDR, clients make an incredible shift from being a captive of their own rigid thinking to having mental space and freedom of acceptance towards themselves and others.

EMDR is different from traditional talk therapy because the therapist guides while the client leads. Clients share as many or few details as they want about their issues that brought them to therapy. This maintains privacy for the client and gives space to process without spending months in therapy with deep analysis of childhood or the like. Sometimes, that is incredibly helpful for clients, but it's not always necessary and EMDR is that alternative option.

What Does EMDR Look Like?

Let's be clear, EMDR is not hypnosis. The client is fully alert and participating, leading every session with the guidance of the EMDRIA-trained therapist.

First, the client chooses an image that distresses them. This could be the moment they hit a guard rail in a car accident, or the moment a spouse told them that there was unfaithfulness in the marriage.

Second, the client identifies what core belief they have around the image. This could be "I'm not safe," or "I'm unlovable," etc.

Third, the client identifies what core belief they would rather have around the image that troubles them. This might be that even though the client knows they had a car accident, or their spouse cheated on them, they would rather believe "I'm okay as I am," or "I can assign appropriate responsibility." Believing something that is more adaptive and growth-oriented gives control back to the client rather than the past circumstance or another person.

Then, the transformation really begins. While the client is fully alert and awake, the therapist directs the client with bi-lateral stimulation (BLS), which simulates what happens naturally in REM sleep. The client can choose a variety of methods for this, such as tapping shoulders or knees, beeping headphones or handheld tappers, etc.

After each round, the client shares 1-2 sentences on what arose for them during that processing period. This could be anything from images to body sensations or thoughts. The therapist adapts the BLS according to the feedback on how the client is responding, but the client is still in the driver's seat. This is especially important for the client to know in any trauma recovery.

When the client reports to the therapist that the originally troubling image no longer causes an emotional disturbance, the positive belief is installed. The client reflects on the belief that they would rather have about themselves, such as "I'm okay as I am" and the BLS is repeated until the client feels they really believe it is true about that situation. Here is where it gets good because the client is able to make meaning out of the uncomfortable or unfortunate thing that happened. It isn't living as "only bad" but rather having a purpose in their memory.

What Are the Benefits?

Much like in a dream, the brain is processing information naturally, but the client still gets to choose what is processed and how. The body knows what to do. It just needs some support. Once that support is given in a safe place, clients don't just survive. They thrive like never before. Their confidence improves and they view the world as a place where they are capable of protecting and trusting in themselves, regardless of what happens around them. They become adaptive.

Short term, clients are no longer emotionally or somatically activated by the trigger image. They are perfectly aware that uncomfortable or unfortunate thing happened, but they are not reactive to it. That is the desensitization of EMDR.

The long-term benefit of EMDR Therapy refers to the reprocessing where clients are able to conserve their energy from mental exhaustion because they aren't living in "fight or flight" mode any longer. Their cortisol and adrenaline are lowered. This leads to reduced inflammation, improved sleep quality, and connecting with others from a position of curiosity and creativity rather than protection.

How Long Does EMDR Take to Work?

The answer is different for everyone and every trigger target. Generally, though, events that happened recently will take less time to process. However, some clients who have done a lot of work to develop adaptive thinking may recover very quickly from long-term traumas with EMDR. Everyone is different and this is why choosing an experienced, well-educated therapist is extremely important. Make sure your therapist received training from an EMDRIA-approved trainer. Most importantly, make sure you are comfortable with them as you are the expert on your healing path.

Author's Note:

As a trauma therapist myself, I can honestly say I am passionate about trauma recovery. I've walked my own path that included EMDR and continue to be recommitted to the process every time I see another client work through another target. It's the best heavy lifting a person will ever do for themselves and it's a gift to guide through and witness. Whatever path you chose, know that you are stronger than you think and the light in me sees and honors the light in you.

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