Understanding The Mystery of EMDR

By Felicia Levy, LCSW

Have you ever heard of EMDR? EMDR is short for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. It is an evidence based therapy technique that helps people reprocess past events in order to alleviate current symptoms, triggers and distress from troubling memories.

I was first introduced to the process many years ago following a terrible car accident. I fell asleep while driving on the Kennedy Expressway, and crashed into four cars. I was lucky to be alive. Following the accident, I kept having flashbacks; I wasn’t able to eat or sleep; I had very high anxiety and was having a hard time even thinking of driving again. I went to see a therapist for a few EMDR sessions and felt better almost immediately. Over ten years later, I no longer have flashbacks, and I’m able to drive without any anxiety. Amazing!

What exactly is EMDR?

EMDR is a specific treatment modality that has been scientifically researched and shown to be effective. It uses what is known as “bilateral stimulation” (BLS) -a specific stimulation that can be either audio, tactile, or visual (or any combination), and occurs in a rhythmic pattern, often right to left.  Bilateral stimulation is one of the core elements that differentiates EMDR from other therapy treatment modalities. The BLS activates both sides of the brain, by assisting the neurophysiological system (the basis of the mind-body connection) which then releases these “trapped” emotional experiences in the nervous system, or as some clients describe “feelings that are stuck.” By releasing these blocked emotions and/or experiences, clients feel better. EMDR is known as a “three pronged approach” because it not only addresses issues from the past, or only issues in the present, yet it addresses things stuck in the past as well as issues that are currently present, and also creates plans for the future by helping the client feel confident they will be able to address issues that may arise.

What’s are actual EMDR sessions like?

EMDR is done in a series of phases, which can occur over the course of several sessions, depending on the issue. The beginning part of EMDR treatment might feel similar to traditional counseling. The therapist does a bit of psycho-social history taking and evaluation in order to determine if the client would be appropriate for EMDR. After the initial evaluation, if the therapist and client decide together to work using EMDR, to get started, the therapist will teach the client many different coping techniques- also known as resourcing. Learning really good coping techniques (and using them!) is important for anyone who is trying to feel better and essential for EMDR!

When you and your therapist feel you are fully prepared and actively using coping techniques on a regular basis, you will schedule a session in which together with your therapist you identify a “target” situation that feels disturbing or stuck. You’ll identify thoughts, emotions, and feelings in your body, as well as any visual aspects of the experience. At this point your therapist will begin using the bilateral stimulation (as described above) and begin the “reprocessing” phase, also known as desensitization.

Each client experiences bilateral stimulation in their own unique way. For some it can be very mild, for others more intense. The amount of sessions to complete treatment depends on the history of the client.  When EMDR is complete (which can take multiple sessions), the disturbing thoughts and feelings decrease in intensity, and are replaced with a reassured or empowered belief about the situation.

What issues can EMDR help with?

One of the incorrect myths about EMDR is that it is only for people who have experienced trauma or have been diagnosed with PTSD. EMDR can help with really just about anything. EMDR certainly has been shown to be highly effective in helping those diagnosed with PTSD or those who have experienced trauma. EMDR can also help with every day issues including insomnia, grief and loss, anxiety, self-esteem, depression, phobias, upsetting memories, panic, negative patterns, self-doubt, addictions, stress reduction, pain, performance anxiety, public speaking, and much more!

Is EMDR right for me?

When I’m working with a client and helping them decide if they’d like to try EMDR, I often ask a series of questions to help them make this decision. Here are a few of those questions you can ask yourself:

  1. Do you feel you have a repeating negative belief about yourself, that logically makes no sense, yet you truly believe it’s true?
  2. Have you avoided certain situations in your life because of phobias or fears that you have been unable to overcome?
  3. Are you feeling stuck moving forward through an issue in your life?
  4. Do you feel you keep repeating the same pattern over and over, even though you’ve tried to change things?
  5. Do you want to get to the root cause of some current symptoms?
  6. Have you been diagnosed with PTSD yet have not been able to feel better?

Please keep in mind, this blog describes a very abbreviated explanation of EMDR and how the process works. For additional information, you can also refer to the best selling book: Getting Past Your Past: Take Control of Your Life With Self-Help Techniques from EMDR Therapy by: Francine Shapiro.

Should you have any additional questions, please don’t hesitate to reach out to us here at InnerVoice Psychotherapy & Consultation in Chicago, IL or Skokie, IL to speak with a therapist.