What is EMDR? How does it work? Is it safe? What’s a session like? These are the four questions I hear most often from my clients about EMDR and I’m going to address all four.
What is EMDR?
EMDR or Eye Movement Desensitization Routine, developed in the last 1980’s, is a widely-used, proven, and effective method to resolve trauma. Its based on bilateral stimulation – holding a negative or painful memory while simultaneously experiencing a second stimulus. The second or bilateral stimulus involves visual, auditory, or tactile stimulation – watching finger or hand movements move left and right, listening to alternating tones, holding small vibrators in the hands, or watching lights flash left and then right.
EMDR is just one of several therapy tools your therapist may recommend. And it isn’t just for PTSD or trauma. It’s also a safe and effective form of treatment for a variety of other problems – anxiety and panic attacks, depression, stress, phobias, sleep problems, complicated grief, addictions, pain relief including phantom limb pain, and self-esteem.
How does it work? Is it safe?
Honestly, no one really knows how EMD works, but extensive research in multiple controlled studies points to the fact that EMDR works well and can be a very fast and effective way to treat PTSD, trauma, and other problems I’ve mentioned above. And, while it can be stressful, EMDR is generally safe if done by a qualified therapist.
I use an analogy with my hands to describe how EMDR works. One hand represents negative or painful memories. The second hand represents the emotional and physical response I have to those memories. Before EMDR, those memories and emotional/physical responses are tightly bound like two clasped hands. When – not if – an unpleasant memory comes up I immediately react to that memory, emotionally and physically, as though the past was the present. After EMDR, my hands are relaxed. Memories remain but without the emotional and physical response. EMDR relaxes or loosens the bound between memories and responses and helps reintegrate memories so they are in the past, where they belong, and not the present.
What’s an EMDR session like?
An EMDR session lasts between 60 and 90 minutes. After my client and I work together to help him or her better regulate their emotions and we’re both comfortable with other aspects of safety, we can get into an actual session. My client and I will have already chosen one bilateral stimulation mode – hand movements, tones, or vibrators – by this point.
I’ll ask my client 6 questions about an unpleasant memory of their choosing, including any physical sensations and their level of distress now. Their distress level has to be between 5 and 9, on a scale of 1-10, for EMDR to be effective. We’ll start with the original memory and then do several 1-3 minute sets of bilateral stimulation, examining any other thoughts that come up in each set. We’ll repeat the process until my client’s distress level drops to 0-1 and they have no physical sensations. In our next session we’ll briefly go back to that unpleasant memory. If their distress is still at 0-1 we’ll move on to another memory. If, not we’ll continue processing that memory.