EMDR in Laymen’s terms – Introduction to EMDR therapy for PTSD, trauma and other anxiety concerns

Have you experienced something very frightening, were exposed to an accident or are a survivor of sexual abuse? Whatever traumatic past you have had, you know that in most cases counseling and therapy can help you feel better. But who to turn to and what to look for? While EMDR therapy is not as new as some people may think, it is receiving more and more attention through media, PTSD support groups, Veteran organizations, survivors of sexual abuse programs and many other mental health related platforms. So in today’s blog, I decided to give some layman information and facts on EMDR therapy, plus EMDR therapists and counselors.

EMDR's founder, Francine Shapiro, discovered the concept by chance in 1987. While walking in a park she realized on herself how eye movements had a calming effect on emotional distress. She then had other individuals experience and confirm her personal observations. However, Shapiro realized that only the eye movements themselves were not enough, so she added a cognitive treatment component and developed a standard protocol. In 1989 the first research studies about the effects of EMDR and the treatment of PTSD (Posttraumatic Stress Disorder) were published that showed significant treatment effects for a majority of clients. Shapiro continued to research the treatment effects and kept developing her therapy approach by implementing client and other therapist’s feedback. Until today various studies have been published that show the positive treatment effects of EMDR in trauma therapy. Overall EMDR is not effective with every mental health problem, but shows effectiveness with disorders that are due to a trauma related memory (www.EMDR.com).

So what is EMDR? EMDR, which is short for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, presents a psychotherapy and counseling model that allows people to heal from the emotional distress and symptoms as a result of an upsetting or traumatic life experience. This therapy has proven to provide quicker relief than other previously applied counseling methods, which makes it become more and more popular. Generally, the brain has the power to heal itself after a psychological trauma. However, sometimes it gets blocked and this is when EMDR can help by removing this block and allowing healing to take place. You can compare it to the healing of a scrape cut on your knee. Usually it heals quickly unless something is stuck in the wound. Whenever the wound has been cleaned recovery can continue rapidly which is what EMDR tries to achieve.

The EMDR therapy protocol includes 8 phases starting with the history taking, (assessment of readiness). Phase 2 incorporates learning and practicing of distress tolerance skills (coping skills) to control strong emotions that are coming up in and outside of session while receiving EMDR therapy. Phases 3-6 include the following components: identifying the target(s) for processing, describing a visual image that represents the specific event, stating a negative believe connected to the event, identifying related emotions and body sensations, finding a positive thought to connect with the event and rating the current emotions plus feelings of truth of the positive thought. The goal of phases 3-6 is to decrease the intense negative emotions and body sensations through bilateral stimulations while holding the image and target in mind plus installing the positive thought. Phase seven is the closure stage by helping the client calm down and applying self-soothing strategies. Furthermore, the client will be instructed on using a personal journal to keep track of new material that may arises outside of session. The last phase, which usually is at the beginning of the following session, presents an evaluation of the previous week’s process and possible identifying of new materials that have to be addressed.

Side effects of EMDR can be upsetting and unresolved memories that come up. Some clients experience reactions during a session that neither they nor the therapist expected like very high levels of emotions and/or physical sensations. Also, after a session the processing of materials very likely continues and other dreams, memories and feelings can arise. Due to these possible side effects it is crucial that the client is ready to start EMDR therapy, has a good support system and a pallet of coping skills to choose from in order to self-regulate in and outside of the counseling session. Certain individuals who have been exposed to severe trauma may show high levels of dissociation, which in layman terms presents an altered level of awareness. In these instances, it is important to work with an EMDR therapist that is experienced in handling these issues because further unexpected emotions, and feelings may arise which need more attention.

 If you are considering EMDR therapy and want to look for a counselor who is providing these services, a good website to check is www.EMDRIA.org. You will have the choice to search for EMDR trained and certified therapists. Counselors and therapists who are EMDR trained have had the basic level 1 and 2 training, which includes internship and supervision hours. EMDR certified therapists have provided a certain amount of EMDR therapy after their level 1 and 2 training, completed continuing education hours and supervision through an EMDR consultant. Certified EMDR counselors are in most cases better equipped to help clients who are experiencing high levels of dissociation due to a traumatic event Since the term high levels of dissociation is very difficult to measure for a layperson, EMDR trained and certified therapists are able to use an assessment tool which can help determine the severity of dissociation. Overall, every individual experiences some level of dissociation throughout the day. One example of this experience would be driving in a car and making it home but then having forgotten how you got here or being surprised of how late it already is even though the car ride seemed to have gone by quickly. These instances of dissociation do not mean they are a problem, which has to be addressed by an EMDR counselor. Dissociation due to trauma can be much more severe with various types of memory loss or out of body experiences. In very tough cases they may include the development of various new identities to suppress the pain. If you are struggling with hyper-vigilance, muscle tension, anxiety which appears to come out of nowhere or in response to certain triggers, have trouble with your sleep, flashbacks, nightmares, anger or emotional outbursts and other symptoms that possibly could be related to one or many frightening past events, consider consulting a therapist who provides EMDR treatment. The counselor can determine through a thorough assessment if this type of therapy is appropriate for you. Feel free to contact me with any questions, leave a comment or contact me to schedule a consult if you are interested to see if EMDR is right for you.

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