What is EMDR?

I am going to borrow, with permission, a well written explanation of  “What is EMDR”, from Barbara Horne, an EMDRIA Certified EMDR Clinician and EMDRIA Certified Trainer.  She works at the Niagara Stress and Trauma Clinic in St. Catherines, Ontario.

EMDR is a therapy that was developed in the late eighties in the States.  It was first used with combat veterans with PTSD, but has quickly come to be useful in eliminating all the symptoms associated with stress and trauma (from PTSD symptoms like flashbacks, panic attacks, intrusive thoughts, anxiety and phobias, through the continuum to depression, over-reactive anger, worrying, disturbed sleep and so on – anything we’re referring to when we say we are stressed out).

EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, but actually it doesnt have anything to do with the eyes! It’s a therapy where you think about something that bothers you (like a traumatic memory or issue) and I wave my hand in front of your eyes, back and forth.  I say it has nothing to do with the eyes because we’ve found that we can get the same treatment effects with a headset and alternating beeps, or alternating taps on the hands.  The eye movements, beeps or taps are a ‘back and forth’ or bilateral stimulation of the brain.  The idea is that traumatic memories sometimes get ‘stuck’ in the information-processing system of the brain, along with the emotions and even the physical sensations that went with the original experience.

When something bad happens, it happens first to the body, then the emotions kick in and then you start to “reprocess” the event- you think about it, sleep on it, get support, time passes etc. At the end of that reprocessing, you can still remember the bad event, but it no longer bothers you-I’m sure that you can think of bad things that have happened to you in your life, and you still remember them but you have peace with them.  That’s an example of the brain working the way it should.  But sometimes this reprocessing gets stuck, and the event is held in memory along with its emotional and physical content, and this is where EMDR comes in.  It “desensitizes and reprocesses” the difficult memory or issue so that you have peace with it.

EMDR has 8 phases and moves through an 11 step protocal.  Prior to doing the bilateral stimulation of the brain, we  first get a trauma/attachment history, develop containment and resourcing to provide you with strategies to help with overwhelming emotions and to expand your window of affect tolerance.

During an EMDR session, you will think about the issue or traumatic memory and we do a number of ‘sets’ of bilateral stimulation of the brain (BLS).  We continue doing this until your level of distress is at a 0.

After EMDR, you will fully remember the trauma you experienced but the fear and upset in your body connected to the trauma will be removed.