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What is EMDR Therapy?

Updated: Mar 20, 2023


Picture of a woman looking happy with two fingers outlining her eyes.

EMDR, which stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy, is a psychotherapeutic modality utilized to address mental health disorders stemming from traumatic memories. Even though it is best known for how well it works to treat post-traumatic stress disorder, it is now being used to treat a wider range of conditions.


EMDR, a new way to help people heal, gives you the courage to look back into the past. This method offers a way to break free from the chains of trauma by using a unique eye movement technique to reprocess painful memories. Though still a fledgling field in therapy, EMDR has demonstrated its remarkable efficacy in many clinical trials since its inception in 1989. Compared to traditional treatments, EMDR works quickly and effectively, which makes it a beacon of hope for people who want to feel better quickly.



Who needs to have EMDR therapy?


Unlocking the potential for a brighter tomorrow, EMDR is a beacon of hope for individuals of all ages seeking relief from mental health struggles. Adolescents, teenagers, and adults alike can all bask in the transformative power of this treatment. Moreover, some healthcare providers possess specialized skills in administering EMDR to children, ensuring that no one is left behind in their quest for healing.



Why is this treatment used?


In EMDR therapy, words need not be the weapon of choice in battling distress. Rather than delving into the gritty details of a traumatic event, EMDR seeks to reframe the thoughts, emotions, and behaviors that stem from it, paving the way for the brain's inherent healing process to take flight. People often use the words "mind" and "brain" interchangeably, but they mean different things. The brain is a physical organ, while the mind represents the conglomeration of our beliefs, memories, and experiences that make us who we are.


The mechanics of the mind are intricately linked to the architecture of the brain, where networks of communicating neurons form a vast and complex web across multiple regions. This is especially true for those areas that govern our memories and senses, as they are tightly intertwined. That's why the mere act of sensing something -- be it sight, sound, smell, taste, or texture - can trigger a cascade of memories to flood back into our consciousness with lightning speed.



Adaptive Information Processing


The Adaptive Information Processing (AIP) model was created by Francine Shapiro, Ph.D., who also created EMDR therapy. This model takes into account the fact that the brain stores normal memories and traumatic memories in different ways. Often, traumatic memories are put in the corner of the mind where they can't be touched or healed.


While the brain usually stores memories seamlessly, trauma can disrupt this process by creating a rift between what we experience and what we can store in memory. Such memories may lack the essential network connections that link them to other memories, leading to a disconnect between our senses and memories. This disconnection prevents the brain from healing fully, leaving the wound of trauma open and raw.


As time passes, newer experiences can inadvertently link up with these earlier trauma memories, reinforcing negative emotions and experiences over and over again. This damages the connections between our senses and memories, resulting in an injury to the mind that can cause lingering pain and sensitivity.


This process can happen with memories we consciously recall and those we try to suppress to avoid the pain they bring. Such suppression, however, is never perfect, meaning that even the slightest trigger can reignite the negative symptoms, emotions, and behaviors associated with these traumatic memories.



Triggers


The human brain is a complex network of memories, senses, and emotions. Unfortunately, traumatic events can wreak havoc on this delicate system, causing improperly stored memories to be triggered by even the slightest connection or similarity to the original trauma.

These triggers can cause overwhelming feelings, including fear, anxiety, anger, and panic. For those with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), flashbacks are a particularly challenging symptom. These flashbacks occur when the improper storage and networking of traumatic memories causes the mind to access them in a way that feels uncontrollable, distorted, and overpowering.


In the grip of a flashback, the past becomes the present, and individuals can feel as though they are reliving the traumatic event all over again. It's no wonder those who experience flashbacks often describe them as a kind of waking nightmare, with the sights, sounds, and smells of the traumatic event flooding their senses in an overwhelming, disorienting way.


Reprocessing and repair


EMDR therapy provides a unique and targeted approach to processing traumatic memories. By accessing these memories in a carefully controlled environment, with the help of guided instructions and eye movements, individuals can begin to reprocess and heal from the emotional wounds caused by the trauma.


As the brain begins to rewire and reorganize how it stores these memories, the emotional charge of the trauma dissipates. What was once an overwhelming and all-consuming experience can become more manageable and less emotionally triggering.


Through this reprocessing process, individuals can regain control over their emotions and lives. Rather than being held captive by past traumatic memories, they can begin to move forward with a greater sense of strength, resilience, and hope for the future.



What conditions and problems does EMDR treat?


EMDR has proven to be a versatile therapy for various mental health conditions. In addition to its effectiveness in treating PTSD, healthcare providers also use it to help people cope with anxiety disorders, depression disorders, dissociative disorders, eating disorders, gender dysphoria, obsessive-compulsive disorders, personality disorders, and trauma disorders. With its ability to address the root cause of these conditions and facilitate healing, EMDR is a valuable tool in the mental healthcare field.


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