EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) has been growing in popularity since its creation in the late 1980s as a leading treatment for traumas of all kinds. I often get raised eyebrows from people when I tell them what the acronym stands for. I get it; it’s long and doesn’t easily explain itself. But, hang in there, because it is truly incredible and unique.
EMDR provides understanding of trauma through the lens of how the brain responds to and stores traumatic experiences and the central nervous system’s activation in the body. Trauma seems to stunt the mind’s ability to healthfully process these events, therefore leaving them frozen in time with its various sensory components, emotions, body sensations, and disturbing beliefs. Anything that isn’t fully worked through can’t be properly cataloged away in your memory bank, so it is open to triggering high levels of distress in your present.
Sometimes triggers can be innocuous — a cabinet shutting a tad too loudly, the perfume/cologne of the person next to you, a song on the radio — but once your brain picks it up, it links directly to that unresolved trauma and turns on the alarm bells in your brain. Once that happens, your central nervous system may trigger a range of reactions such as a racing heart, body tension, sweaty palms, a panic attack, or feelings of dissociation.
Unresolved trauma trains the brain to constantly be on alert for threats of (real or perceived) danger and can create the feeling that your past is your present. EMDR was created to directly target unresolved trauma and provide a safe environment to navigate through it, make meaningful connections, and create new experiences of safety and security.
EMDR is unique from other forms of therapy in that while there is a talk-therapy component, it isn’t traditional talk therapy. Trauma is experienced on a spectrum. Some stories are easier to organize and talk about more than others. So, EMDR provides a way to connect to trauma in a structured way, that does not require vocalizing every detail of it.
So, what does it entail and look like? Once clients have the appropriate coping strategies they need to manage their symptoms and have mapped out the trauma they will tackle in therapy, one can begin the “R” of EMDR — reprocessing. This involves bilateral stimulation of your brain — through eye movements, tactile tappers, or audio tones — and free association. Subsequent to the long treatment name, this is usually where I get a second eyebrow raise.
Trauma stunts processing by deactivating the part of the brain that helps with language, organization, and meaning making. So, the bilateral stimulation of the brain while you focus on trauma keeps this part of your brain “online” to allow for your entire system to come to the table and work through the trauma. It also seems to accelerate the healing process faster than solely using talk-therapy. The free association component gives space for your mind to wander wherever it needs to within the trauma. The more you lean into the disorganization of the trauma, the brain finds a way to organize and resolve the distress.
EMDR is a great sole focus or adjunctive addition in therapy and can be applied to many presenting issues and levels of trauma. Once trauma has been resolved there is a rich opportunity for post-traumatic growth: a newly minted way of experiencing yourself and the world around you with a sense of empowerment, security, and confidence.
For additional information on EMDR, check out these helpful resources: