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What is EMDR?

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is an approach to psychotherapy that has been practiced in the US and around the world for the past 20 years.

Aspects of EMDR are unique: In particular, the therapist leads a patient in a series of lateral eye movements while the patient simultaneously focuses on various aspects of a disturbing memory. During this procedure, patients tend to “process” the memory in a way that leads to a peaceful resolution. This often involves new learning about the self and often new learning about a previously disturbing event.

1. We have an inherent information processing system (an emotional healing system) that is designed to integrate our life experiences and maintain a state of mental health, much as we have healing processes to maintain our physical health.

2. Most mental health diagnoses stem from earlier disturbing or traumatic life experiences which are not adequately processed and are trapped in the nervous system along with the images, beliefs, emotions and body sensations that were there at the time of the trauma. These experiences become stuck in isolated pockets and can be triggered by something that happens in the present, causing the individual to re-experience the upsetting event, or aspects of it. It’s kind of like a little land mine waiting to go off, and it can be detonated over and over again. EMDR neutralizes the stuck trauma so it feels like it’s past, not flooding into the present. It can then be recalled without disturbance.

3. EMDR a person is asked to focus on an unprocessed memory of an upsetting event, including pictures, beliefs, emotions and body reactions. Then, the eye movements (or other rapid back and forth stimulation) “jump-starts” the emotional healing system and the old, stuck material is integrated into the person’s whole life as it is stored in the brain, and it loses the power to be so upsetting. The EMDR process relieves distress, brings about new insights, and allows the person to feel better about him/herself. The past feels like the past and the person can be more fully in touch with resources, strengths, and choices in the present.

1. History taking
2. Preparation
3. Assessment
4. Reprocessing
5. Installation
6. Body Scan
7. Closure
8. Reevaluation
Some people may think of trauma as something like a death, a hurricane, or an earthquake. While those things are clearly traumas, they don’t begin to cover the range of experiences that can be traumatic. Some other types of trauma include:

  • Significant illness, surgery, or hospitalization, especially in childhood,
  • Losses of many kinds, such as death of a loved one or pet, loss of friends and secure environment in a move, loss of a significant relationship, loss of options through accident or injury, etc
  • Humiliating or deeply disappointing experiences,
  • Abandonment and isolation, especially in childhood,
  • Physical, emotional or sexual abuse,
  • Observing violence, especially among other family members,
  • and many other types of hurtful experience.

One definition for trauma is any event or situation which a person is unprepared to handle. For example if a 4-year-old gets separated from her parents in a mall for a short time, it may be very traumatic; when the same person is 30, getting separated from another adult in a mall would probably be a problem to solve, not a trauma. However, if the 30 year old had the 4-year-old trauma unhealed and stored unconsciously, the 30-year-old experience might cause unnecessary panic.

  • It happened in childhood,
  • The person was powerless,
  • It happened repeatedly,
  • It was a result of cruelty or neglect, especially from a family member or trusted other
  • No one helped at the time or in the aftermath.
  • It lead the person to believe he/she was unworthy, unsafe, or helpless.

When a trauma occurs, once or repeatedly, people react in different ways, all of which are understandable, even if not ultimately useful. People often blame themselves for their symptoms, even though they are actually normal reactions to abnormal events.

  • Shock, denial, or disbelief,
  • Experiencing “flashbacks” related to the trauma,
  • Anger, irritability, mood swings,
  • Guilt, shame, self-blame,
  • Feeling sad, depressed, hopeless
  • Confusion, difficulty concentrating,
  • Anxiety and fear,
  • Withdrawal from others,
  • Feeling disconnected and numb,
  • Avoiding thoughts and actions related to the trauma,
  • Feelings of worthlessness and accepting mistreatment
  • Using addictive substances or self-injurious behaviors, etc
  • Insomnia and/or nightmares,
  • Being easily startled,
  • Pain or discomfort, often not helped by medical intervention,
  • Muscle tension and/or feeling “on edge,”
  • Fatigue
  • Experiencing body feelings similar to those during the trauma, etc
  • Developing close, satisfying relationships,
  • Functioning to full potential in a career,
  • Experiencing joy in social interactions,
  • Feeling like a worthwhile, valuable person,
  • Experiencing a full range of emotions,
  • Being able to tolerate situations which remind him/her of the trauma,
  • Moderating use of alcohol or other addictive substances, etc

EMDR therapists are well trained in helping you understand how past experiences which you may not even realize qualify as traumas may still be affecting you. Using EMDR, your therapist can help free you from the lingering effects of trauma and help you regain your full potential for happiness and success.

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