EMDR Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing
Updated: Mar 31
What is EMDR?
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is an integrative psychotherapy approach that has been extensively researched and proven effective for the treatment of trauma and phobias. EMDR uses the patient’s rhythmic eye movements, bilateral audio or tactile stimulation, under the guidance of a trained therapist, to access and process subconscious memories.
How does EMDR work?
EMDR seems to desensitize the way the brain processes information. After an EMDR session a person is no longer triggered by the images, sounds, and feelings of a traumatic event. You still remember what happened, but it is less upsetting. EMDR appears to be similar to what occurs naturally during dreaming or REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. Although we still have a lot to learn about what happens when we dream, it is believed that the brain is processing events of the day. EMDR can be thought of as a cognitive and somatic based therapy that helps a person process disturbing material that has remained in the subconscious.
To better understand how EMDR works, think of a piece of food that gets stuck in your throat. Until it can be dislodged or broken down, it cannot go down your digestive tract. The same thing applies to emotionally experiences that are too ‘large’ or painful to ‘digest’ psychologically. They get stuck in your subconscious mind until they are accessed, processed, and healed. Traumatic experiences overwhelm the brain’s natural coping capacity, giving rise to less desirable coping strategies like avoidance or self-medicating. EMDR has been found to be highly effective in helping dislodge stuck memories, release repressed emotions, understand old experiences in new ways, and reprocess traumatic information so its no longer psychologically disruptive.
What is Bilateral Stimulation?
Bilateral stimulation is the essential component of EMDR, allowing information to be processed by both sides of the brain (feelings and cognitions) by means of an alternating sequence. Specifically, during EMDR, the therapist guides a client in a series of bilateral or “left-right” eye movements while the client focuses on various aspects of a disturbing memory. This alternating sequence of eye movements is called “bilateral stimulation.” Other types of effective bilateral stimulation are finger, hand or toe tapping, hearing an alternating sound between the left and right ears while wearing headphones, or using a vibrating device to apply tactile stimulation to the hand. The therapist must be at minimum a Masters level Psychotherapist, Psychologist or Clinical Counsellor and have received an EMDRIA approved 2-part training that includes a practicum and written exam.
Theories behind the effectiveness of bilateral stimulation include:
Stimulating the right and left hemispheres of the brain encourages the two hemispheres to actively communicate with each other, resulting in a more integrated experience
Bilateral stimulation enables a sense of dual awareness, keeping clients in the present moment while the mind simultaneously goes somewhere else (into the past). This helps ground clients in the present, reducing the distress associated with events or memories being processed. Similarly, it helps keep the mind open to processing information in new and different ways.
EMDR can be done online?
The client is given a link for a remote EMDR website. With the guidance of the therapist, the client chooses a light bar that provides left and right bilateral eye movement or an audio cue that plays a tone in the left and right ears. The audio version requires the use of headphones. The rest of the EMDR protocols remain the same as an in person EMDR session including history taking, client preparation, assessment, desensitization, installation, body scan, closure and re-evaluation of treatment. It is also important to note that not everyone is a
candidate for EMDR.
What kind of problems can EMDR treat?
Scientific research has established EMDR as effective for post-traumatic stress. However, clinicians also have reported success, using EMDR in treatment of the following conditions
When EMDR began as new therapy for PTSD it was met with scepticism; today eye movement desensitization and reprocessing is accepted as a treatment of choice for post traumatic stress disorders by many trauma organizations and mental health departments. Over 20 controlled clinical trials have been completed, with results attesting to the value of EMDR and demonstrating its usefulness across age, gender, and culture.
For more information about EMDR:
Carol Alexander received her EMDRIA approved training in 2014/2015 and has been practising EMDR online since 2020. To see if you are a candidate for EMDR, book a consultation.