What is it?

EMDR stands for “Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing.” This is an extremely valuable tool in the treatment of complex trauma (among many other conditions). In the past, trauma could take years to “work through” in once-weekly talk therapy; EMDR, however, can shorten that timeframe to a few months – or even a few weeks. The premise is based on our understanding of the way traumatic memories are processed and stored – or, more accurately, how they perhaps aren’t processed and stored.

One analogy I like to use likens our mind to a cluttered storage closet. When you’re in a hurry to get to work, for instance, but you’re trying to tidy up the place because your in-laws are coming over for dinner that evening, you might throw some random stuff into the storage closet to put away properly some other time (while, of course, hoping that your in-laws won’t later mistake the closet door for the bathroom door!). But then you never have time to put that stuff away properly…or you just dread that task and never get around to it. So the stuff starts accumulating and at some point, when you open the storage closet door, the items just spill out everywhere, tumbling down all around you. It’s a big mess that no one needs.

With EMDR treatment, you take all that “stuff” (like traumatic memories and experiences – both conscious and unconscious) and begin to categorize, label, and store that stuff in a much more organized way. The stuff is still there, but it’s no longer spilling out and giving you such a headache. With less effort, you can see what you have in that closet, and you’re not sitting there just guessing and worrying about it.

How does it work?

When we talk about healing trauma, it can be helpful to think about how a doctor treats a physical injury. If you break your arm, you’ll get x-rays and the doctor will put your arm in a cast for a period of time; your arm is allowed to heal more quickly than it would if you kept going about your daily basis and tried to ignore the pain. Sort of like treatments for physical injuries, EMDR can be a really effective treatment for emotional wounds.

During an EMDR session (which is typically a bit longer than a “regular” session to allow for deeper processing), I will guide you through a series of questions while simultaneously engaging you in what’s known as “bilateral stimulation” (or BLS). This generally consists of side-to-side eye movements, rhythmic tapping your shoulders or knees, or listening to audio tones that alternate between your left and right ears. The magic of EMDR is in the way we combine these bilateral movements with simultaneous verbal processing.

There are several theories as to why EMDR is so helpful in treating symptoms associated with intrusive thoughts, memories, or experiences. One hypothesis is that the dual attention required when using bilateral stimulation and concurrent verbal processing can dramatically speed up the adaptive (or healthy) processing of whatever material or content seems “stuck” for you. Another hypothesis involves what we know about the R.E.M. (rapid eye movement) sleep state and the richly complex way our brains continue to absorb and process information they’ve inputted throughout the day. During the R.E.M. stage of sleep, your eyes move back and forth very rapidly beneath your closed eyelids. There’s a lot of activity happening in your brain during this stage, and it’s generally considered to provide the foundation for the experience of dreaming. The eye movements involved in EMDR mimic those we see in our R.E.M. sleep state (though your eyes will be open during the treatment session) and can help efficiently organize and store unprocessed material.