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What is EMDR?


EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) is a powerful method of psychotherapy. To date, EMDR has helped an estimated two million people of all ages relieve many types of psychological distress.

In 1987, psychologist Dr. Francine Shapiro made the chance observation that eye movements can reduce the intensity of negative, disturbing thoughts. Since then, EMDR has developed and evolved through the contributions of therapists and researchers all over the world. Today, EMDR is a set of standardized protocols that incorporates elements from many different treatment approaches.

EMDR Explained

EMDR is a powerful psychotherapy technique that has been very successful in helping people who suffer from trauma, anxiety, panic, disturbing memories, post traumatic stress, and many other emotional problems. Until recently, these conditions were difficult and time-consuming to treat. EMDR is considered a breakthrough therapy because of its simplicity and the fact that it can bring quick and lasting relief for most types of emotional distress.

What are the advantages of EMDR therapy?

Research studies show that EMDR is very effective in helping people process emotionally painful and traumatic experiences. When used in conjunction with other therapy modalities, EMDR helps move the client quickly from emotional distress to peaceful resolution of the issues or events involved. Studies consistently show that treatment with EMDR results in elimination of the targeted emotion. The memory remains, but the negative response neutralizes.

The short-term benefits of EMDR are simple and straightforward – the possible immediate relief of emotional distress and the elimination of the debilitating effect of unresolved past trauma.

How does EMDR work?

No one knows how any form of psychotherapy works neurobiologically or in the brain. However, we do know that when a person is very upset, their brain cannot process information as it does ordinarily. One moment becomes "frozen in time," and remembering a trauma may feel as bad as going through it the first time because the images, sounds, smells, and feelings haven't changed. Such memories have a lasting negative effect that interferes with the way a person sees the world and the way they relate to other people.

EMDR seems to have a direct effect on the way that the brain processes information. Normal information processing is resumed, so following a successful EMDR session, a person no longer relives the images, sounds, and feelings when the event is brought to mind. You still remember what happened, but it is less upsetting. Many types of therapy have similar goals. However, EMDR appears to be similar to what occurs naturally during dreaming or REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. Therefore, EMDR can be thought of as a psychologically based therapy that helps a person see disturbing material in a new and less distressing way.

Does EMDR really work?

Approximately 20 controlled studies have investigated the effects of EMDR. These studies have consistently found that EMDR effectively decreases/ eliminates the symptoms of post traumatic stress for the majority of clients. Clients often report improvement in other associated symptoms such as anxiety. The current treatment guidelines of the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies designate EMDR as an effective treatment for post traumatic stress as have the US Department of Veterans Affairs and Department of Defense, the United Kingdom Department of Health, the Israeli National Council for Mental Health, the American Psychological Association, the American Psychiatric Association, and many other international health and governmental agencies. Research has also shown that EMDR can be an efficient and rapid treatment. For further references, a bibliography of research is available through EMDR International Associations' web site.

The EMDR technique does two very important things. First, it "unlocks" the negative memories and emotions stored in the nervous system, and second, it helps the brain to successfully process the experience.

EMDR makes it possible to gain the self-knowledge and perspective that will enable the client to choose her/his actions, rather than feeling powerless over one's re-actions. Longer-term benefits of EMDR therapy include the restoration of each client's natural state of emotional functioning. This return to normalcy brings with it a greater sense of personal power, more rewarding relationships, and a more peaceful life.

What happens during an EMDR session?

Just as EMDR assists the brain with its natural processing of emotional information, the EMDR therapist assists the client in their healing process by becoming a partner on a journey to release past trauma from the client's nervous system. A typical EMDR session begins with the therapist gently guiding the client to pinpoint a problem or event that will be the target of the treatment. The client calls to mind the disturbing issue or event, what s/he saw, felt, heard, thought, etc., and what the current negative thoughts and beliefs are about that event. The client simultaneously focuses on an alternating bilateral stimulus (ABS) and the disturbing material, and just notices whatever comes to mind without making any effort to control direction or content. Each person will process information uniquely, based on personal experienced

The EMDR technique does two very important things. First, it "unlocks" the negative memories and emotions stored in the nervous system, and second, it helps the brain to successfully process the experience.

Sets of ABS continue until the memory becomes less disturbing and is associated with positive thoughts and beliefs about one's self: for example, "I did the best I could." During EMDR, the client may experience intense emotions, but by the end of the session, most people report a great reduction in the level of disturbance.

How often would I need EMDR therapy?

One or more sessions are required for the therapist to understand the nature of the problem and to decide whether EMDR is an appropriate treatment. The therapist will also discuss EMDR more fully and provide an opportunity to answer questions about the method. Once the therapist and cient have agreed that EMDR is appropriate for a specific problem the actual EMDR therapy may begin. A typical EMDR session lasts from 60-90 minutes. The type of problem, life circumstances, and the amount of previous trauma will determine how many treatment sessions are necessary.

Is there any discomfort involved in the EMDR process?

The EMDR treatment can evoke strong emotions or physical sensations during a session. This is perfectly normal and desirable, since the technique works on the negative feelings when they are brought into the client's awareness. However, the re-experiencing of these unpleasant feelings is brief and they will soon leave when the process is completed.

If the client will persevere through the upsetting memories for a short time, s/he will likely be thrilled with the outcome of the therapy. Relief occurs rapidly, and for many, permanently.

What happens between EMDR sessions?

After an EMDR session, there may be a strong sense of relief, a feeling of openness or even euphoria. Some clients may experience physical tiredness due to emotional release. This is a normal reaction to the release that takes place.

From time to time, some clients experience unusual thoughts or vivid dreams that may or may not have any meaning. This is part of the releasing process and should not cause undue concern. Actually, unusual experiences during the time period of the EMDR therapy indicate that it is working. It is helpful to keep a log of those triggers.

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