What Are You Noticing Now: What is EMDR Therapy Anyway?
With increased normalization of going to therapy, we’ve started doing our research on different treatment styles in therapy. Chances are you’ve stumbled across this relatively new approach to treating distress: Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy, or EMDR.
EMDR was originally developed in 1987 by Dr. Francine Shapiro, PhD but only recently picked up traction with books such as The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk releasing in 2014 featuring the treatment modality. To date, more than 100,000 clinicians have been trained in the approach. EMDR is continuing to show growing popularity as celebrities like Sandra Bullock and Whitney Cummings to even Prince Harry, The Duke of Sussex have been going public with their experiences of using EMDR with their own therapists.
EMDR is an evidenced based treatment and has proven to be effective for multiple topics. When you start Googling, you’ll find a large majority of articles connecting EMDR to the treatment of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) the most.
But what is EMDR anyway?
EMDR is a treatment approach that addresses the physiological storage of memory and how it informs our experiences which focuses on allowing the brain to naturally heal itself. Change is understood to be a natural byproduct of reprocessing due to the alteration of memory storage and the link to adaptive memory networks (Shapiro, 2001). Just like the way your body becomes harmed and functions differently when injured, the brain becomes harmed and rewires itself when we experience deeply distressing events. When we have an experience that is especially stressful or disturbing, our minds are unable to fully process that experience at the time it occurs. The unprocessed or partially processed experience is dysfunctionally stored in memory and may contain the emotions, sensations, physical states (body memory), beliefs, and other aspects of what we experienced at the time. These are the memories that continue to feel upsetting today. Often times, it’s these beliefs, emotions, and body experiences that are contained in these memories about the past that continue to affect how we experience ourselves and our lives in the present, many times without us even realizing it!
While traditional talk therapies and/or prolonged exposure therapy focus on discussing traumatic or distressing events which may lead the person seeking therapy into significant stress by having to re-tell each detail of their story, EMDR allows the individual to safely unpack and repack their distressing experience WITHOUT having to recount piece by piece what’s happened to them. A study funded by the National Institute of Mental Health that was conducted by a well-known exposure therapy researcher (Rothbaum et al., 2005) found that both EMDR and prolonged exposure were effective, and stated: “An interesting potential clinical implication is that EMDR seemed to do equally well in the main despite less exposure and no homework."
Using a standardized protocol and bilateral stimulation (eye movements, taps, or sounds), EMDR therapy facilitates our brain’s natural way of healing so that we can process now what could not be processed at the time that the experience occurred. Once naturally and fully processed, those disturbing experiences can truly be in the past, stored in our long-term memories as useful information to guide us in the future. EMDR is a way to disarm the negative emotions and responses that these memories of the stressful events bring out. This approach allows the brain’s stress signals to be rewired so we don’t feel like we are constantly in fight-or-flight mode.
EMDR isn’t just about eye movement or complex brain work, though - EMDR is about having a mind-body connection. One of the most important skills in this treatment is the ability to tap into our body to truly feel and describe what emotion we are experiencing. Much of EMDR’s work is done to alleviate the distressing, disarming, debilitating feelings traumatic or negative experiences incur to allow us to be able to feel our emotions without becoming overwhelmed and over-active. Not only does EMDR treat trauma, but this approach looks at our deep-rooted beliefs and how we formed them. Our beliefs form the basis of what we think, do, and say. EMDR assesses our “why” and helps us move past limiting beliefs that may be keeping us stuck or repeating our same patterns over and over again. This helps us move past our “I know, BUT …” response when we are doing something and/or having reactions although we know it doesn’t make sense or might just be plain wrong.
I like to picture EMDR in this way - imagine you have a dresser and a pile of clothes. You take the pile of clothes and shove them all unfolded into one dresser drawer. Sure, the drawer almost closes, but it’s a struggle to re-open the
drawer and then re-close it every time you need a new shirt. EMDR opens the drawer, folds the clothes inside, then nicely closes the drawer again. Now, opening the drawer doesn’t seem nearly as difficult as it was before - it’s not difficult to do so.
EMDR therapy is an eight-phase treatment approach. During memory reprocessing, the client recalls a disturbing event for a short period (for example, 30 seconds) while simultaneously undergoing bilateral stimulation that can consist of moving the eyes from side to side, vibrations or tapping movements on different sides of the body, and/or tones delivered through one ear, then the other, via headphones. New associations emerge and often become the new focus of attention. That’s where your therapist would ask, “What are you noticing now?” No homework is required, just noticing what comes up for you within sessions, and the client is not asked to describe the memory in detail. The goal is to let the brain’s information processing system make new internal connections as the client focuses on the thoughts, emotions, memories and other associations that are freely made during the sets of bilateral stimulation.
During the brief check-ins - “What are you noticing now?” - there are no right or wrong answers. You're the observer and just allow what you notice to move freely and try not to control. Often there may be a quick check in at the beginning of session to make sure other outside stresses from the day that might hinder the EMDR session.
Intriguing right?! In our upcoming series of posts, we’ll discuss more on how EMDR is greater than eye movements, who benefits from the approach, and facing your fears. Stay tuned to learn more about this innovative and effective approach to trauma treatment!