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What is EMDR?

EMDR is a trauma-informed therapy that helps individuals manage mental health concerns (such as PTSD, anxiety and depression) that can arise from traumatic events in your past.

 

EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. That very long and super jargon-y name is a very complex way of saying that this therapy involves:

  • A client moving their eyes (eye movement) during a period of time (10-20 seconds) as they think about a traumatic event or series of events.

  • While moving your eyes (often following a cue from the therapist, such as their fingers moving back and forth), a part of your brain becomes occupied (the part that would like you push away those traumatic memories when they pop up), allowing you to recall and process memories.

  • Recalling and moving through (or processing) past memories allows you to become desensitized to their message and emotional impacts.

  • As you become desensitized to the events, you reprocess them from a new lens (your resilience in the situation, etc., that were over-shadowed by the traumatic experiences you carried with you).

 

Memories are housed in our brains in a series of networks, including traumatic ones. That’s why certain things, like a smell or a song, can trigger a memory or series of memories (i.e., that network is activated). For example, I love the smell of freshly baked bread because it always reminds me of my mom making bread when I was little. In a person who experiences trauma, triggers that are linked to the event can cause us to bring forth the emotions we felt at the time the traumatic event occurred. For example, if you were attacked while walking at night and listening to a specific song on your headphones, when you hear that song in the future, it may trigger fear, a sense of being unsafe, or other emotions that you experienced during/after the attack.

 

If you have ever wondered “why did I reacted so intensely to that event” or if someone commented that your reaction was too big for what happened, this may be why – you aren’t just reacting to now, but also all the emotions from then, being triggered and brought forth in your brain.

 

EMDR can help process the emotions and negative self-judgements that arose from trauma. So, the event becomes something that happened in the past, a real memory, rather than something that is still happening and being brought forth when triggered. The feelings of fear or being unsafe, for example, are felt to a much lesser magnitude, if at all.

 

What is really nice about EMDR is that it is mostly a non-verbal therapy, which means that a lot of the work is done within your brain, without you having to recount the events to a therapist. You can tell your therapist as much or as little as you like about what is coming up in your memories, but with just enough detail so that your therapist can make sure you are not caught in a specific moment in time. You can even say “its progressing” if that is all you would like to share at that time.

 

Remember, each time you engage in a set (following the therapist’s cue to move your eyes) is quite brief, from 10-20 seconds. Your therapist acts as your guide to ensure that you are within your window of tolerance, supporting your regulation, and ensuring you are comfortable with the process. The number of sets completed depends on the amount of time you have, your comfortability with how things are progressing, and how much detail you would like to share between each set.

EMDR Infographic from therapist.com

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