“EMDR” stands for “Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing.” Sounds scary, I know. The first time I heard of EMDR, I was in graduate school for my Master of Counselling Psychology degree at Adler University (then called Adler School of Professional Psychology). I thought it sounded “hoaxy” and “rigid.” Back then, it was claiming to be a specified tool for trauma counselling–almost like a “silver bullet.”
Well, I sort of filed that information away for a later date and continued on with my studies, eventually working with male survivors of sexual abuse in my practicum. I struggled along trying to figure out how to help this population with their (often very complex) distress–with little to NO guidance from traditional psychotherapeutic orientations. I think I did alright as most of my clients were progressing…although s..l..o..w..l..y.
Then I came across a course offered by the BC School of Professional Psychology: Basic Training in EMDR. I thought to myself, “Self you need to be able to provide more for your clients than basic empathy and some life skills lessons.” So I decided to bite that bullet and pay the hefty cost for tuition (around $2,000…which is a lot for a recent graduate!). The first day in this program, I knew the rest of my life would be different. I had found the missing piece to my clinical puzzle.
EMDR looks weird...but it works.
EMDR is weird. Let’s face it. It looks a bit like what you might expect from a hypnotherapist who developed a movement disorder. The therapist sits close, but off to the side and waves their hand in front of the client’s face, instructing them to follow their fingers from side to side. This triggers neuroplasticity. Honestly, I thought, “They’ve GOT to be KIDDING…” Well, they weren’t…and wouldn’t you know it? It works. In class, we watched countless videos and heard countless stories from the instructors’ clinical experience to support the reading material. I started to believe what I was hearing and seeing, and after the first weekend of studies, was racing to begin to (carefully) try this with my own clients.
The first few clients who I began utilizing EMDR with (very traumatized individuals with complicated Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder symptoms), began to experience extraordinary results. One client I had been seeing for OVER a year with almost NO serious progress, processed his sexual molestation memories in as little as THREE sessions!! Going from stating that he would kill his attacker if he saw him, to stating that he’d politely confront his attacker in public if he saw him, and forgive him for his wrongdoing (of course he wouldn’t be friends or anything, but he simply didn’t need to carry that psychological weight anymore).
Another client I had been working with for almost two years, processed his ENTIRE life’s traumatic history (60+ years) in as little as a few months!! This client had almost uncontrollable buried rage and a host of cognitive problems related to early-life abuse from his caregivers, torture, and sexual abuse trauma; he went from being seriously suicidal, to positively optimistic about his life–and found a new relationship partner to spend the rest of his life with.
“How can this be?” I asked. Well, in order to understand why the results happened and as quickly as they did, it’s important to know a bit more about EMDR and what physiologically happens within one’s brain when experiencing a trauma.
What is "Trauma?"
First of all, “trauma” is not something that needs to be as sensational as “war,” “abuse,” or some other way of experiencing one’s life as “in danger.” “Trauma” can be an accumulation of several smaller incidents, such as: repeated rejections, failure to be properly cared for or neglected in childhood, or that inner critic in the back of one’s mind consistently saying, “You’re not good enough…” Of course there’s many, many, more sorts of instances where one experiences trauma, but in general, we consider “trauma” to be: anything that is experienced as “overwhelming” to the organism.
What happens when one experiences a trauma, is that it gets “stuck” in the brain in much the same manner it entered–such that all the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, physical sensations, and the corresponding internal emotional response and belief statement about one’s self–gets locked in. The brain does not process it like other less-troubling experiences (like: “what was for dinner today”), and stores this information in the right hemisphere of the brain. The individual then is forced to “look through” the lens of this traumatic experience and begins to see the world as it has been newly formed–being triggered by little events, which now seem overwhelming.
For example: if I were to be retrieving money from an ATM and were suddenly held at gun-point, robbed, and left shaken and scared, I may begin to believe that “the world is a dangerous place” and each time I reached for my wallet or passed an ATM, I might be flooded with overwhelming terror and panic; I may even suddenly distrust every new contact I make, or avoid leaving my house entirely.
This sort of behaviour is common among those who have been traumatized by an attacker. Another example would be a child who grows up in a household where they are constantly criticized and affection is received only with demeaning remarks like, “you’re fat,” or “you’re a little monster, aren’t you?”–these children might grow up to be highly traumatized with very negative self-referencing beliefs about themselves and others (they might even develop an eating disorder).
When these events are located within one’s history, the EMDR clinician will appropriately “target” the most salient memories in relation to the trauma and eliminate the distress associated with it, via the individual’s own adaptive information, gleaned from their life experience (but was previously not “available to their consciousness”). The traumatized information is gently assisted to move from the right side of the brain, to the left (with eye movements, tapping, or buzzers held in the hand). The result is that the individual sees the event from a “new lens” rather than their previously dysfunctional perspective.
I can say with ABSOLUTE certainty that this method works. Some individuals with more complicated traumas (and few emotional resources/tools) take longer than those with more experience with affect management strategies. EMDR has over 30 years of empirical evidence to support the claim that it not only effectively treats acute trauma symptoms and disorders like PTSD, but it can be used to treat: depression, mood disorders (bi-polar), eating disorders, performance anxieties, phobias, sexual dysfunction, marital and relationship wounds, suicidal and self-destructive thinking and behaviour, and much, much, more.
I have my own EMDR therapist, and I almost always incorporate EMDR into my treatment plans when working with my clients. I’ve seen some remarkable things occur in a fraction of the time of that which other therapeutic approaches might otherwise take years to correct. If you’re currently in therapy, good for you (it’s better than nothing, trust me); if you’re currently in therapy with an EMDR certified therapist, even better (welcome to the fast lane). If you’re not in therapy at all, and are curious, I suggest looking for an EMDR therapist–what do you have to lose?
WTF is EMDR? It’s the future of mental health.
If this blog interested you, and you’d like to know more, visit my website at: www.grigorecounselling.com
When you’re ready to set up a FREE consultation to see how this powerful method of treatment can change YOUR life, we’ll be happy to show you.
With care and respect,