(Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing)
This word conjures up a sense of the horrific: death, disaster, violation. In the world of psychology, we call this “Big T Trauma.”
Other events that seem like they might be more commonplace can be just as traumatic. Childhood rejections, a negative interaction with a parent or teacher, embarrassing moments. You guessed it, we call those types of things “little t trauma”. Big T or little t, both types can affect people in ways that hinder them from living the life they want to live.
EMDR is one of the world's leading trauma therapies. This stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing which is a very scientific word that leaves most people not really knowing what it actually is. Some may have heard of it and think of it as “that eye movement thing.” It is so much more than that! We'd like to lend some clarity to what EMDR is, what it looks like, and what EMDR is not.
What is EMDR?
EMDR is an evidence-based approach to treating trauma. Trauma (big T or little t) is conceptualized as an event that you interpreted in a traumatic way, causing that memory to get “stuck” in a place in your brain with all the emotions, thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations you felt in that moment. This memory negatively impacts present-day functioning and you may not even be aware of it. When events in your life trigger that trauma, it pops up and influences the way you act. This could be why you worry, blow up in anger, over-prepare, avoid certain people, never speak up, feel repulsed at certain smells, feel frustrated in relationships, resist taking risks, etc. That hidden memory lodged in your brain may be bossing you around.
EMDR is a process that targets those blocked memories and gets them moving through your brain to a place where they can be stored safely away. An assumption of EMDR is that the body was designed to heal itself, and memories will naturally move to that adaptive place once the block is removed. Your brain knows what to do.
What does EMDR therapy look like?
Your therapist will spend a few sessions asking questions about your experience with trauma and gaining a general understanding of which memories/thoughts would be best to target. This is not a deep, triggering understanding – just a starting point. Your therapist will also work with you on managing your expectations about your experiences in EMDR therapy. She or he will empower you with tools to manage traumatic memories or sensations.
When you are ready, she or he will ask you to think of the target memory and the way it makes you feel about yourself while they guide you to move your eyes back and forth for a few seconds (this can happen in person or online). Then they will ask for a brief description of what you are noticing and repeats the eye movements. This process continues while the therapist monitors your reactions for signs that the memory is moving to a more adaptive place in your brain. The therapist also monitors your ability to deal with the experiences coming up and makes modifications to help you feel safe. The focus on eye movements while thinking of the memory helps keep the memory from showing up too intensely; it keeps your brain aware that you are in the present moment, not in the memory’s moment.
Reprocessing happens with past memories, present triggers, and anticipated future triggers. No matter where the reprocessing ends up in your session, your therapist will work with you to find a place of closure until the next session and a way to manage any sensations that could come up between sessions.
As therapy progresses, your therapist will have conversations with you to continually re-evaluate whether it is going well for you: your comfort level, the direction the memories are taking you, and adjusting to life without the trauma burden you have been carrying.
EMDR is not:
EMDR is not hypnosis; you are in complete awareness and control of yourself throughout therapy.
It is not a new trend; it has been around for over 30 years and has robust research to support its efficacy.
It is not just the eye movements; eye movements are the most researched way to stimulate the stuck memory. Sometimes your therapist may suggest using tapping, sounds, or buzzers that you hold instead.
It is not the same experience for every person. For some, memories might come up, for others, it might be any combination of physical sensations, thoughts, emotions, spiritual imagery, or metaphors. It is unique to you because your brain is in the driver’s seat, and it knows exactly what it needs to do.
It is not a memory-eraser. It may help you look at your memories differently (again, this is unique to each person) but they will still be there.
EMDR training requires the therapist to play a role as an EMDR client. I is amazing how our brains lead us through reprocessing a memory! It often shows what part keeps you stuck and can easily incorporate God into the healing process. Everyone’s experience is different, but we have seen incredible potential benefits for EMDR clients.
If EMDR sounds like something you are interested in, give us a call.
Leah Sauls are Sanctuary's EMDR-trained therapists.