EMDR Therapy: Understanding How An EMDR Therapist Can Help You

EMDR Therapy: Understanding How An EMDR Therapist Can Help You

Are you having emotional reactions that seem disproportionate to the situation? Snapping at loved ones or feeling overwhelmed, disconnected and unfulfilled in your life and relationships? If so, you may be experiencing the effects of unresolved trauma and you may benefit from EMDR therapy. 

Many clients come to Couples Learn to understand how past traumatic experiences shape the way they are showing up in their relationships. One of the most efficient ways to heal from past experiences and cultivate fulfilling relationships is through EMDR therapy. You may have heard friends or colleagues mention EMDR therapy, but wonder how it really works, and if it could be right for you. So what does EMDR stand for? And why does the name sound so complicated? This article will explore what EMDR therapy is, how it works, and how to find a qualified EMDR therapist.

EMDR or Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing therapy may conjure up images of laying on a couch being hypnotized, but it’s actually far from its seemingly “woo woo” sounding name. EMDR therapy is backed by years of research and it is recommended by the American Psychological Association as a successful trauma treatment. 

EMDR therapy was founded by Clinical Psychologist Francine Shapiro Ph.D. in 1987, after she realized that bilateral stimulation on the body can impact the way the brain processes information. EMDR works by engaging the brain’s natural healing process to re-process painful past experiences that were stored improperly at the time of the traumatic experience. Engaging in EMDR therapy with a trained EMDR therapist can help to reduce trauma, anxiety, depression, panic disorder symptoms, and relationship issues.

What Is EMDR Therapy?

If you have found yourself confused after Googling “EMDR definition” and attempting to decipher the results, this section can shed some light on what EMDR really is. 

Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy is an evidenced-based trauma treatment that helps alleviate psychological distress caused by traumatic memories and negative beliefs. In fact, the research shows that EMDR therapy is the most efficient trauma treatment available. According to a publication through The EMDR International Association, EMDR was recently named the most cost-effective treatment for adults with PTSD. The average number of sessions needed to heal from trauma, and alleviate symptoms of anxiety, panic disorder, depression, and other mental health concerns is much shorter than a cycle of treatment using other evidence based methods.

The EMDR Therapy Process

EMDR therapy sessions can help you handle trauma

EMDR works by using bilateral stimulation to guide the brain to reprocess a distressing memory. Bilateral stimulation is the process of stimulating each side of your brain, one at a time. This left-brain right-brain alternating stimulation is achieved through sound, touch, or eye movements. For example, you might listen to a beep played through headphones that alternates playing in your left ear, then your right ear. Or, you may follow a light with your eyes that causes them to move from left to right. Or, you may hold buzzers in your hands that gently vibrate left and right or tap your own shoulders with your hands, alternating left to right. Your EMDR therapist will help you to find the bilateral stimulation option that is most comfortable.

It is hypothesized that the process of bilateral stimulation mimics the process of REM sleep when our eyes move left to right rapidly. REM sleep is the time when our brain processes and stores the events and emotions from our day. After reprocessing in EMDR therapy, the brain retains the memory without the powerful emotions associated with it. Just like “sleeping on it” often helps give you new perspective on an issue. Most clients report feeling lighter, and as though the negative event has less power over them after EMDR treatment. 

The beauty of EMDR therapy is it doesn’t require extensive discussion of the memories or lengthy homework in between sessions. It is helpful for moving through trauma in a more manageable way than having to tell all the details of your trauma and reopening emotional wounds over and over again through talk therapy. Research also shows that after engaging in a successful EMDR treatment for one issue, the brain actually has greater resiliency in managing future traumas and healing from them more effectively.

What is EMDR Therapy Used For?

Who can benefit from EMDR therapy? You may be thinking, I haven’t suffered any major traumatic events so I’m not sure EMDR is really for me. Most people associate trauma with major events such as physical assault, sexual abuse, natural disasters, a car accident, or other life threatening events. These experiences are indeed trauma and they are what we call big “T” trauma in the psychological world. EMDR Therapy is very effective in treating big “T” traumas.

However, many people have experienced non-life threatening trauma, called small “t” traumas which are often just as impactful and can be especially harmful to functioning in relationships. Small “t” traumas are things like emotional abuse, neglect, abandonment, racism, homophobia, and bullying. These small “t” traumas often happen repeatedly to the same individual throughout childhood and possibly even adulthood, causing many challenges in functioning and sometimes even leading to a disorder called Complex PTSD. There is a specific type of EMDR called Attachment Focused EMDR Therapy which is particularly helpful in treating the developmental trauma associated with small “t” traumas and Complex PTSD.

EMDR has been shown to be clinically useful for treating anxiety, panic disorder, and depression. It can also be used to help strengthen attachments, heal relationship wounds, and benefit couples therapy. 

EMDR for PTSD 

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD is a psychological disorder that develops as a result of a big “T” trauma or a trauma where you believed your life was at risk. Symptoms of PTSD include nightmares, hypervigilance, flashbacks, trouble sleeping, difficulty controlling your emotions, and avoidance of things that remind you of the trauma. EMDR counseling works to reduce the emotional charge associated with the memory of the event and stop trauma triggers from sending you into re-experiencing the event. These flashbacks, which are common in PTSD survivors, can derail daily life and cause symptoms of avoidance and isolation which further deteriorate mental health. By getting to the root cause of the PTSD, and reducing the emotion associated with the traumatic event, an EMDR therapist can help you move past your trauma and live a more fulfilling life.

a couple discussing EMDR therapy for trauma

EMDR for Trauma

EMDR therapy is most often used to treat trauma. EMDR for trauma and PTSD were the first methods of EMDR to be researched and used successfully. By engaging with traumatic memories in a small tolerable amount, you do the work with part of your awareness in the present moment, connected to your surroundings and current safety, while exploring the past distressing event. This allows your brain to send messages between the amygdala (responsible for regulating emotions) and the hippocampus (related to memory). This dual awareness of the past and present helps you to release the intense emotional portion of the memory while maintaining the understanding that the event occurred. 

EMDR for Anxiety

Similar to its power for treating trauma, EMDR for anxiety has also been shown to be highly effective. Most mental health issues are caused by negative experiences stored in our brains and labeled as dangerous, due to our evolutionary survival instincts. The brain is trying to protect itself from further trauma or potential death, so it carefully catalogues any distressing or perceived life threatening event and any details about what was happening at the time the event occured. The brain then responds to anything similar in the future as a potential threat and will send a signal to the body to get ready to fight, flight, or freeze to protect itself from the threat. 

These reminders often trigger an unwanted response. A trigger signals to the brain that a potentially dangerous situation (requiring an anxious response to protect ourselves) is about to occur. If you have experienced anxiety you may be able to remember the first time you felt anxious. This memory serves as a template for your anxious experiences and each time you experience another anxiety provoking event, your brain remembers it, flags it, and stores it in that channel of memories. EMDR therapy works to address the distressing memories which make you feel anxious and relieve your current symptoms. 

EMDR for Depression

EMDR for depression works in a similar way to EMDR for anxiety and trauma. Oftentimes, we create meaning and negative beliefs about ourselves from the experiences we have. For example, a lack of satisfaction or success in your job may cause you to have a belief about yourself that you are not competent. This is called a negative core belief. This belief about yourself likely causes you to feel unmotivated, ashamed, sad, and/or angry. You may also experience other symptoms, such as negative thought patterns, disengaging from activities you used to enjoy, and trouble sleeping. 

Oftentimes, you can link that negative core belief about yourself to a specific situation in which you were yelled at by a boss, or passed up for a promotion, or missed a deadline. Or, it may go even farther back to childhood experiences with a critical parent. Whatever the distressing memory, the resulting belief about yourself can be reframed through EMDR therapy. Although, you may not have undergone a life threatening event, the memory of a distressing situation can be reprocessed with dual awareness in the past and present with a trained EMDR therapist to help you move forward and develop a healthier view of yourself. 

EMDR Couples Therapy

Whether one partner has experienced a trauma which is impacting their level of distress, or both partners experienced a trauma conjointly, EMDR therapy can be helpful in healing the trauma and allowing the couple to move forward without being constantly re-triggered and falling into old unproductive patterns of communication and disconnection. EMDR couples therapy can involve one partner being a present supporter for their partner as they reprocess distressing memories or it can be used to build safe attachments with one another to strengthen the relationship.  

Healing from trauma? EMDR therapy can help

How Does EMDR Therapy Work? 

EMDR works by engaging in the brain’s natural healing process, in which information is moved back and forth between your right and left brain to be processed and stored. As mentioned above, this is done by using bilateral stimulation to re-process maladaptively stored memories due to painful past experiences. 

In EMDR therapy, you’ll be asked to think about a target memory and then begin and continue bilateral stimulation until the emotional disturbance of the memory is reduced. The bilateral stimulation activates the memory network associated with the traumatic memory and everything that needs to be processed will come forward. That’s the beauty of our brains and bodies – if we remove the blockages that are preventing our natural processes from taking place, our body can do what it needs to do to heal.

EMDR therapy does not hurt or require you to be connected to a machine. It can bring up painful past memories and cause you to feel the emotions or body sensations that are associated with the memories as you move through it but most people find this tolerable. Your EMDR therapist will work with you to create dual awareness so that you can maintain your awareness in the present moment where you are safe as you experience the sensations associated with the past memory. Your EMDR therapist will also teach you self-soothing tools to use during EMDR before you even start the processing.

How Will I Feel During EMDR Therapy?

EMDR Therapy does involve some emotional discomfort and fortitude to move through the distressing memories to allow the brain to process them in a new way and release the emotional power they have over you in the present moment. The only way to move forward is to move through it but you and your therapist will move at a pace that feels safe for you. The reprocessing portion of EMDR therapy is often described like being on a train and looking out the window at the changing scenery. You are aware of what you are seeing (past memories) but you allow it to pass you by as you move forward and leave behind the distressing feelings associated with the memories. 

When you finish reprocessing, you may feel a sense of lightness in your body, relaxation, or perhaps exhaustion. Many people describe feeling a sense of release, openness and peace. Everyone experiences EMDR differently, but some people may experience side effects of vivid dreams or fatigue directly following a session. Others report feeling emotionally vulnerable following a reprocessing session. Once you move through the process, you will experience effects of reduced sensitivity to triggers and be able to talk about the situation without becoming emotional, or having the negative symptoms you previously experienced. 

What to Expect in an EMDR Session

A typical EMDR session starts off with you getting to know your therapist, and the therapist helping you identify important events and memories linked to the disturbances you are experiencing. Once the history taking portion is completed, you will work with your EMDR therapist to identify memories to target first. Before tackling the distressing memories, you will develop various self-regulation skills to ensure that you are comfortable self-soothing and remaining within your window of tolerance for difficult emotions. The idea is that you develop the basic skills you need to ground yourself and get back to baseline, before addressing distressing memories so you feel more confident beginning the reprocessing.

After learning these important self-regulation skills, you will start with your chosen memory. Your EMDR therapist will help you identify the emotions associated with the memory, a negative belief about yourself, and a positive belief that you would prefer to have about yourself. You then identify where you feel the emotion in your body, and hold that in your awareness as you engage in bilateral stimulation (BLS). All methods of BLS are effective and the method used is based on personal preference and therapist discretion.

Online EMDR therapy sessions can be as effective as in person EMDR sessions.

Why EMDR Therapy Works

EMDR therapy works because it connects the old distressing memories with new information. You are accessing the traumatic memory in small manageable doses and paring it with new information and new beliefs about yourself. The brain naturally has the ability to heal from trauma. The problem is that sometimes these situations are so intense that they hijack the brain’s ability to access this natural healing and rational approach to the information. 

EMDR therapy helps the brain tap into its natural ability to move forward from the pain associated with the memory and access the safety present in the current moment. The unprocessed information at the time of a distressing event incorrectly causes the brain to store the emotions and related physical sensations along with that memory. Many psychological disorders are caused by this lack of processing and improper storage. Therapists use EMDR to tap into the brain’s natural process of storing information and pair the traumatic memories with adaptive information such as positive coping, reframed thoughts and beliefs, and new resources for support so that they don’t feel scary anymore. Through EMDR therapy, the brain can properly process the memory and alleviate the symptoms created by the maladaptively stored memories.

Finding an EMDR Therapist

If after reading about the effectiveness of EMDR therapy, you’re wondering where you can find an EMDR therapist, we’ve got you covered. The therapists at Couples Learn can provide you with skilled EMDR therapy to overcome painful past experiences, help you live the life you want to live and show up as the person you want to be in your relationships. We have therapists trained in both Attachment Focused EMDR as well as traditional EMDR Therapy. The best part is, you can do EMDR from the comfort of your home with online therapy from Couples Learn. Book your free consultation to learn more about our EMDR services and pricing.

Want to learn more about EMDR therapy at Couples Learn? Watch the video below to learn more about the EMDR therapy process and what to expect in an EMDR session.