What is EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization & Reprocessing)?
EMDR is a highly-effective and efficient therapy for symptoms of stress and trauma.
While it was first used to treat people experiencing PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) with symptoms like flashbacks, nightmares, phobias, and panic attacks, EMDR has been found to be an effective therapy with other issues as well, including: anxiety, depression, anger, intrusive thoughts, self-esteem, etc.
What is trauma?
Trauma can be defined as any event that causes an unusually high level of emotional stress and has a long lasting negative impact on a person. Whether someone develops trauma symptoms following a negative event depends on the person’s subjective experience of that event. In other words, it would not be unusual for a group of people to experience the same negative event (e.g., a bank robbery) and for some of the people to be “back to normal” within a couple of days, for others to have some symptoms (e.g., anxiety while visiting the bank), and then others to go on to develop PTSD.
When I ask people if they have experienced anything traumatic in their life, most people answer “no”, unless they have endured such things as severe child abuse/neglect, torture, rape, war, or natural disaster. This is partly because of how the term “trauma” is used in society today- we attach it to the really big, horrible events.
A useful distinction can be made between two types of trauma: “Big T” trauma and “Little t” trauma. The types of events listed above would fall under “big T” trauma, and it is often these types of events that lead to more acute and severe trauma symptoms, including PTSD. On the other hand, “small t” traumas refer to life events that are more common experiences, sometimes happening repeatedly, that can have a cumulative and negative impact on the person and how they see themselves, the world, and their relationships. The term “small t” trauma does not imply, however, that the emotional impact of these events is smaller. Several “small t” traumatic experiences could have a greater impact on someone than a single “big T” trauma. It is reasonable to say that everyone has endured many “small t” traumas in life, such as being teased in elementary school, losing a job or a pet, an unhealthy relationship, etc.
How does EMDR work?
Your brain has an incredible, natural ability to heal your psychological wounds following life’s very difficult, painful events. When the brain is working optimally it is able to process negative experiences such that they become neutral memories that no longer cause distress. For example, you can probably think of an event in your life that was scary and horrible but when you look back on it today you are able to say, “That was really awful, but I’m safe now. I’m okay”. However, there are times when the brain becomes overwhelmed by life’s terrible experiences and is not able to process them effectively, leaving the person distressed. When an experience(s) is not processed (or not fully processed), it becomes “stuck” in both the mind and the body, resulting in the symptoms we associate with trauma.
This is where EMDR comes in- it desensitizes and reprocesses negative memories releasing you from the pain and turmoil of the past. EMDR works by identifying the key negative experiences that led to your current issues and uses evidence-based techniques to support your mind and body in processing what it wasn’t able to do at the time.