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What on earth is EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing)?

EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy. Discovered and developed by Dr. Francine Shapiro in 1987, it has a long-proven track record of helping children and adults process traumatic or upsetting thoughts, feelings, or memories. These unwanted or intrusive thoughts can manifest themselves with a wide span of physical or mental symptoms. These symptoms may range from frustrating and annoying to debilitating.

In the simplest of terms, sometimes our thoughts and memories get "stuck" in our brains. Our brain is divided into the right and left hemispheres. The right hemisphere is what actively takes in information through our body's senses. The left hemisphere is where our brain processes and makes meaning out of that information. Unfortunately, in instances of trauma, the brain is stuck on the sensory aspect. As the person recalls the memory or feeling, their brain and body are experiencing the event again as if it were actively happening. We can think of this as a deer in the headlights when it sees a truck bearing down on it. In cases such as this, our brain is the deer trying to decide whether to fight, flight, or freeze. A person in this state may experience acute physical symptoms such as a racing heart, shallow breathing, or tunnel vision. Their brain cannot distinguish the difference between recalling and experiencing the event. Without intervention, this person remains in the cycle of reliving the trauma every time the memory is triggered.

EMDR helps the brain to integrate and reprocess what it has experienced. EMDR involves a protocol of bilateral movements activating the left and right sides of the brain. EMDR is done by moving the eyes left and right while tracking the therapist's fingers, alternately tapping the right and left sides of a person's body (for example, their hands or knees), or having the person hold a small buzzer in each hand that alternately pulses. During the session, your therapist will have you talk through what you're experiencing as you recall the memory. It may be an emotion, a thought, a physical sensation, or something related to the five senses. Additionally, as part of the session, your therapist will work with you to replace the traumatic or "target" memory or feeling with a positive belief.

It's important to remember that EMDR is not a one-and-done event. You may experience an improvement in your symptoms after one session, or it may take several. Also, EMDR is not an eraser for your brain. After your sessions, you will still recall the "target" memory or feeling; the difference will be how your brain and body react to it. In a sense, your brain is reprogrammed, so the thought no longer has the same mental and emotional "charge" it had before.

Part of EMDR involves bilateral stimulation which may include listening to binaural sounds through headphones or speakers.

What is EMDR used for?

Often, you hear about EMDR concerning treating people with PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder), such as veterans who experienced active combat. Sounds such as a firework going off or a car backfiring can trigger a robust response such as a panic attack or an undeniable urge to run away from the perceived "danger." EMDR can help a person reprogram their brain so it no longer activates this heightened state of arousal. However, EMDR can be just as beneficial for someone experiencing depression or generalized anxiety. For example, a person may struggle with issues related to their body image. They may tell themselves over and over for years that they are fat, lazy, or unlovable. It doesn't matter how many loved ones tell them this is untrue. In that person's mind, the thought is permanent and ingrained. EMDR can help replace these damaging thoughts with more positive and affirming thought patterns in cases such as this. Together, the therapist and client can work to reframe the client's thinking permanently. The beautiful part of EMDR is that it doesn't require the client to use willpower or "think happy thoughts." It instead actively rewires the pathways in the brain to change the client's mind. This experience can be very freeing to someone who was previously trapped inside their head and unable to disentangle themselves from unwanted or disturbing feelings and memories.

Often traumatic memories can be triggered by certain visuals, smells, or sounds. EMDR can help lesson the mental "charge" when recounting these events.

What makes EMDR so effective with children?

One of the beautiful things about children is their adaptability and resilience. Even children who have experienced profound trauma can work to overcome their past and go on to have happy and healthy childhoods. With EMDR, the earlier we can utilize it, the more effective it will be. As soon as the therapist identifies that the child is a good candidate for EMDR, they can get to work to help that child replace their traumatic memories, experiences, and feelings with a positive mantra or phrase.

How is EMDR different than play therapy?

EMDR and play therapy utilize different approaches but are complementary. With children, we can often incorporate EMDR into the play therapy session. During a play therapy session, a child may share something upsetting. It is then that the play therapist can take that opportunity to begin EMDR. The sooner EMDR is begun after a traumatic event, the more effective it is.


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