FAQ about EMDR

Frequently asked questions about EMDR:

What is EMDR?

EMDR is an evidence-based treatment for trauma and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Research has shown it to be effective in helping people heal from a wide range of traumatic experiences, including combat, childhood abuse, sexual assault, natural disasters, and other events that are or feel like they are life-threatening. EMDR has been used effectively to treat other mental health issues, as well.

How was EMDR developed?

EMDR was developed by Francine Shapiro, Ph.D., senior research fellow at the Mental Research Institute in Palo Alto, California. One day in 1987, Dr. Shapiro had something disturbing on her mind and decided to take a walk in the woods. She noticed at the end of her walk that she felt much better. Intrigued, she sought to learn what about her walk had made her feel better. She surmised that it was the back and forth movement of her eyes as she looked at the plants that grew along the path. That idea sparked many years of experimentation during which she tested and refined her hypothesis with people who had experienced trauma ranging from minor disruptions to rape and war. Through her research, she established the protocol known as EMDR, which has proven effective in treating trauma of all types.

Why is it Called EMDR?

EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. Although it was eye movements Dr. Shapiro first identified as central to the protocol, we now know that other types of bilateral stimulation (BLS) also work, such as music and tapping.

What is the EMDR Protocol?

EMDR treatment comprises three phases: resourcing, reprocessing, and integration.

  1. Resourcing consists of identifying and reinforcing strengths and positive coping skills that may have been overwhelmed by traumatic experience(s).
  2. Reprocessing consists of disempowering the trauma memory so it is possible to remember the event(s) without re-experiencing it/them.
  3. Integration consists of bringing the rediscovered strengths and skills to combat any remaining symptoms in a future vision.

What is Bilateral Stimulation?

During each EMDR phase, bilateral stimulation (BLS) is used to reinforce positive elements and process negative ones. BLS refers to a stimulus that is sensed on one side of the body at a time. BLS may be provided by a variety of stimuli. Hand-held tappers deliver a mild vibration to one hand at a time. Music, played through headphones to one ear at a time, may be used alone or in conjunction with tappers. Tapping on alternating knees or shoulders is another approach. And an object may be moved back and forth to create the same type of eye movements for which the treatment was named.

What problems does EMDR treat?

EMDR has been used effectively to treat a large number of psychological issues, including:

  • Addictions
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Dissociative disorders
  • Emotional abuse
  • Grief
  • Panic attacks
  • Peak performance issues
  • Performance anxiety
  • Phantom limb pain
  • Phobias
  • Physical abuse
  • PTSD
  • Sexual abuse
  • Trauma

How does EMDR work?

We experience a traumatic event with our whole selves – cognitively, emotionally, physically, and spiritually. When we aren’t able to return to feeling safe after a traumatic experience, these aspects of the trauma get stuck; they’re too big to be digested. If you imagine a bathtub, the pieces of the traumatic experience clog the drain. Then the next time a traumatic event occurs, it can’t be processed because the drain is clogged. And even after you come to understand the trauma cognitively or emotionally, the other aspects of it remain, preventing the tub from emptying out.

EMDR unclogs the drain. The bilateral stimulation allows the big pieces of this experience to be processed. When that happens, the stuck experiences from the original drama are dissolved, making it possible to also process later traumas.

Although we don’t know exactly how it works, the latest theory is that it mimics the processing that occurs during REM sleep. Another theory is that EMDR mimics the natural order of things. Native cultures around the world all have traditions that involve drumming and dancing. After the hunt or the battle or the hurricane (that is, after a traumatic experience), the community comes together and tells the story while drumming and dancing. In other words, people process the events that were too big to digest. We no longer have that tradition in our culture, so instead we use EMDR to help us process our traumatic experiences.

How long is typical EMDR treatment?

Treatment varies from one or two sessions for simple PTSD, such as a car accident, to a year or more of sessions for complex PTSD, such as that resulting from years of childhood sexual abuse. Length of treatment also depends on your strengths, coping skills, social support, and desire to get better. You and your therapist will discuss what is optimal for your specific situation.

How do I get started with EMDR?

The first step in EMDR treatment is to be assessed to determine whether it can effectively treat your symptoms. This assessment should be conducted by a trained EMDR practitioner. Once it is determined that EMDR is an appropriate treatment approach, you and your therapist will begin resourcing.

Want to learn more about EMDR? Contact Alexandria Hayes at alex [at] lab-inst [dot] com

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