What is EMDR?
EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. It is a treatment modality that was originally developed to treat trauma/PTSD. It has an 8-phase protocol that is used to work with the underlying causes of PTSD.
By now, you should have read something about what causes PTSD or how treatment works. If not, you might want to check out one of those links.
EMDR is a somatic psychotherapy modality, which means that it works with the body (or more accurately, the part of the mind that is most closely connected to the body, the autonomic nervous system, or ANS). When traumatic events occur, it is the ANS, not our conscious mind, that responds. The responses are simple and very basic (most animals can do these things): Fight, Run, Freeze or Disconnect (we call this “Dissociating”). These responses can be very adaptive, very helpful, when we are in a threatening situation. Oftentimes, they will save our lives.
The problem comes later–when the threat is gone. Sometimes (not all the time), people can feel like the threat is still going on. We call this PTSD. It’s fundamentally an ANS problem, and to my way of thinking, an ANS problem requires an ANS solution. That’s why I’m not a fan of just talking about the traumatic events (many therapists, for example, use a Cognitive Behavioral approach, which I don’t generally use for trauma, as I don’t think it really heals the underlying problem).
In somatic approaches (such as Trauma Dynamics and EMDR), you don’t have to talk as much about what happened. Certainly we need to talk enough so that you can remember and bring up the memory, but it’s not about giving me the details of the event–I don’t need them. Somatic therapies help allow the body to heal. We have to somehow convince the body that the traumatic event is over, by allowing that part of the mind to process it.
How does it help PTSD?
EMDR helps the the mind/body resolve trauma by using what’s called bilateral stimulation. The most common (and preferred) form of this is working with eye movements. However, it can be done by using sounds or touch, in several ways. Bilateral stimulation seems to allow the brain to process traumatic memories faster. It seems to “jump-start” the healing process.
Why does it work? We don’t know. Actually, we don’t know for sure why any therapies work–we just know that some of them do. We think that it has to do with facilitating communication between the two sides of the brain, which process information differently. The theory behind this is called the Adaptive Information Processing model. It explains how EMDR helps your brain turn your trauma from something that feels like it’s still happening into something that happened, and is over.
But you don’t need to know this to use EMDR. All you need is a therapist who is trained in and willing to follow the proper protocol, one that you trust and who has listened well to you as you have described your issues.
Can something as strange as EMDR really work?
Short answer: Yes. And when EMDR works, it’s extremely helpful. It can sometimes remove 100% of PTSD symptoms. Of course, childhood trauma is tougher than adult trauma most of the time, and can take longer to resolve. But still, we are talking about much less time than used to be spent on talking therapies. In fact, many people used to be in therapy just talking for many years, never getting much better. This doesn’t happen when EMDR works. And the research says it works well most of the time.
What about when it doesn’t work well? Usually there are things we can do to enhance it. But in the final analysis, it’s up to you. If you are one of the few people it doesn’t work for, or you’d rather not do it, that’s no problem. There are other ways to work on PTSD that are helpful and promote healing and can allow you to be successful in reaching your goals (a reduction or elimination of PTSD symptoms).
So when we start talking trauma, I’ll start talking about somatic psychotherapies like EMDR or Trauma Dynamics. I like to go with what works. 🙂