Ever seen a movie where a psychiatrist with a thick German accent tells a client to follow the pocket watch with his eyes? Tells him that he’s getting very, very sleepy? Then proceeds to reprogram his mind while he’s hypnotized so that his mental problem is miraculously cured?
Well, EMDR Therapy – Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy – isn’t really like that at all. But it might sort of look like that to someone seeing it in action for the first time. It’s different from all the other kinds of therapies we’ve talked about in this series so far because it’s not a kind of talk therapy, but rather involves the science of the brain and eyes to create a unique solution for psychological distress.
Q: If EMDR isn’t a kind of talk therapy, what is it?
A: First of all, EMDR is almost always used together with some form of talk therapy, so if you were undergoing it, it wouldn’t be just you and a therapist in a room doing eye movement exercises for the whole session.
EMDR was first developed for clients who suffered from PTSD. The idea behind it is that people with traumatic memories don’t always process those memories because the memories were so disturbing when they happened. If the memories never get processed, though, then the person can never heal. As the EMDR Institute’s website explains, you can think of it the same way you’d think of a physical wound: “When you cut your hand, your body works to close the wound. If a foreign object or repeated injury irritates the wound, it festers and causes pain. Once the block is removed, healing resumes.”
To make sure that the client’s memories are all getting processed, then, and that the wound from the past gets “unblocked,” a psychologist can use EMDR techniques. We’ll get into what those techniques are in just a few moments, but the basic idea is using an external stimulus to provoke insights from the client that he or she probably wouldn’t have had otherwise.
Q: Sounds kind of weird. Is there evidence that it works?
A: There is quite a lot of evidence that EMDR, when combined with talk therapy, is very effective at reducing the amount of time that clients take to recover from traumatic experiences. Studies have shown that PTSD was eliminated for 100% of people who experienced a single traumatic event and about ¾ of people who experienced multiple traumatic events.
Also, the EMDR Institute’s website reports that respected organizations like the American Psychiatric Association, the Department of Defense, and the World Health Organization have recognized EMDR as an effective treatment of trauma.
Q: I don’t have PTSD, though. Does that mean EMDR isn’t for me?
A: No, not at all! Even though EMDR was originally developed for people with PTSD, it’s now used to treat a wide range of mental health issues. Basically, anyone who has distressing memories that they’re having trouble processing, that they can’t seem to move past, could potentially benefit from EMDR.
Q: What would happen in a typical session of EMDR?
A: First of all, remember that, as mentioned above, almost any EMDR therapy session would also involve talk therapy. But the actual eye movement part of the therapy is unique.
First, the therapist gets some information about the client’s history, about incidents from the client’s past that cause emotional distress and targets that the client has for the future. The client will identify a visual image related to a negative memory, a negative belief about themselves, any related emotions and body sensations that happen when they think of the memory, and a positive belief about themselves that they’d like to reach.
The EMDR Institute’s website gives a good description of what happens next:
“After this, the client is instructed to focus on the image, negative thought, and body sensations while simultaneously engaging in EMDR processing using eye movements, taps, or tones. The type and length of these sets is different for each client. At this point, the EMDR client is instructed to just notice whatever spontaneously happens. After each set of stimulation, the clinician instructs the client to let his/her mind go blank and to notice whatever thought, feeling, image, memory, or sensation comes to mind.”
This process goes on, with the therapist making adjustments as necessary until the client reports that the target memory is no longer a source of distress. At this point, the therapist moves on to helping the client meet the target positive belief.
I know it can be a little difficult to picture what EMDR would look like in action just by reading about it, so I’ve included a couple of videos that demonstrate it.
This one, from Dallas Counseling, shows EMDR with the use of sophisticated technology:
This one, published by Mary Schroeter, shows a simpler version of EMDR without the aid of technology:
As you can tell, EMDR is a unique therapy that might not appeal to everyone, but might be worth considering, particularly if your reasons for seeking therapy involve a traumatic event from the past.
If you want to talk about EMDR or any other kind of therapy and whether or not it might be right for you, you can call us at (305) 501-0133 or click here to schedule a free 20-minute Clarity Consult to learn more about how working with one of our therapists can help you improve your life.