If you’ve ever done a web search for best practices in trauma treatment, chances are good that you’ve come across the acronym, EMDR. EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing which probably leaves most people just as puzzled as they were by the abbreviated version of the name. To put it more simply, EMDR is a therapy that uses right and left sensations or movements (called bilateral stimulation) to desensitize (reduce the emotional “charge” in) difficult thoughts, images or memories. It is most often used with processing traumatic memories, but the therapy has been so successful that it has been expanded for use with addictions, anxiety, eating disorders and a host of other dysfunctional behaviors and intrusive thoughts/beliefs.
The therapy is based on the Adaptive Information Processing Model, which basically says that the brain is wired to heal itself but gets blocked by unprocessed memories. These memories are unprocessed because the brain goes into survival mode during threatening situations and cuts off all but the most basic functions. Unfortunately, this survival mechanism causes traumatic memories to be stored differently, often as sights, sounds, smells or stand alone images. The brain then gets blocked when it tries to access these memories (we call these triggers) and dysfunctional behaviors result. The idea is that if you can show your brain where it is getting hung up, the brain will heal the memory and any other memories that are associated.
The basic EMDR protocol involves a process of identifying present day dysfunction (emotional outbursts, panic attacks, nightmares, etc.) and floating back in memory to the
place where the dysfunction was first noticed. Practitioners help clients attach a negative thought or belief to the memory and ask them to note where they feel it in their bodies. With focus on the negative cognition, body sensation and memory, the clinician then applies some form of bilateral stimulation while the client allows the brain to freely associate with the memory and anything else the brain attaches it. The therapist does not need to have the client recount every detail of the trauma but merely “checks in” periodically to see how the client is doing. The use of bilateral stimulation aids the client in staying grounded so the client does not feel caught in a full body re-experiencing of the trauma.
If you are struggling with difficult memories but afraid to open up the proverbial “can of worms”, please contact Impact Counseling to find an EMDR practitioner who can help you process in a way that is compassionate toward your mind, heart and body.
Elizabeth Parks, LPC, EMDR Trained