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What is EMDR?

I mentioned EMDR in a recent post and I often have clients who come in asking "What is EMDR?" They may have hear about it from someone, or seen it mentioned on a therapy website. They want to know what EMDR is.

EMDR is one of many different therapy tools a clinician may use.

Like any other tool, it is more effective in some situations than in others. For example, you're not going to pound in a nail with a screwdriver. You want to use a tool that is appropriate for the job.

EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. It was developed in the 1980s by Francine Shapiro, Ph.D., and has been researched in the decades since.

EMDR has been demonstrated to be effective for treating a number of clinical and therapeutic issues, particularly related to trauma.

Who practices EMDR?

Clinicians who use EMDR undergo training in various levels of EMDR, with requirements for EMDR supervision as well.

The governing body for EMDR training is EMDRIA and more information can be found on their website at

When may EMDR be helpful?

When we experience something that overwhelms our basic abilities to cope, our brain's ability to process the information and store the information appropriately is compromised.

In that moment, our fundamental task is to get through the experience however we can. The more primitive part of our brain takes over and does what it does best: survive.

In those times, our more developed and higher functioning parts of our brain goes offline. As a result, the memory of the trauma--and the lessons learned during the trauma--are unable to be processed and stored in a healthy and adaptive manner.

As a result of inadequately processed trauma experiences, we may be left with ideas about ourselves, and our world, which are inaccurate and ultimately not helpful.

These are what an EMDR clinician may refer to as a "negative cognition." These negative beliefs about ourselves may be something like "I'm powerless" or "I can't protect myself."

For example if child is threatened by an abusive caregiver and submits in order to survive, the message "I'm powerless" may have been accurate and "adaptive" at one time. This belief allowed the child to do what was needed to survive.

If the belief persists, however, it may become unhelpful and maladaptive. It can adversely affect our lives when we are older if we continue to act on the belief "I'm powerless" or "I can't protect myself."

Even those of us who were fortunate to have “good enough” parents, and a “good” childhood, often have experiences which resulted in learning and beliefs about ourselves which can hold us back in our lives.

Depending on other factors related to resiliency, these old inaccurate beliefs affect each of us to different extents.

EMDR can be helpful as we gain insight into the unhelpful and inaccurate messages we have about ourselves. Messages we learned at different times in our lives: in our childhood, our adolescence, even in adulthood if something happens which overwhelms our ability to cope.

How does EMDR work?

EMDR is a tool which utilizes the brain’s natural inclination toward healing.

When we sleep, our brains are busy processing information from the day. It is believed during REM sleep, when our eyes move from side to side, the brain is sorting through and storing our experiences.

This bilateral processing mechanism is the basis for EMDR as well. EMDR uses techniques which stimulate opposite sides of the brain. This allows the brain to “reprocess” the material, and to connect trauma-stored-memories to more adaptive beliefs and learning.

By reprocessing, the brain has the opportunity to store the memory in a manner promoting a more functional belief about ourselves and our world.

Working with a therapist, a client holds an image, memory, or other reminder of a past incident in mind. The therapist then uses bilateral stimulation (eye movements, sounds, or sensory “tappers,”) to allow the brain to process the information by stimulating one side of the brain followed by the other.

The processing occurs in a way that avoids retraumatizing the client.

With EMDR the focus is on a dual awareness: “I’m safe here in the present and I can ‘watch’ the memory of the trauma pass by as a train passenger watches the landscape pass by.”

One of the amazing things about EMDR is that a client does not have to verbalize all of the details of a trauma to the therapist. This often comes as a great relief to individuals for whom retelling the trauma is like reliving the trauma.

The client and therapist work together to reprocess the memory, often resulting in decreased disturbance for the client related to the memory as well as a new, more adaptive belief about themselves and the meaning of the experience.

EMDR is one of the tools in a trained therapist's toolbox.

Just as you wouldn’t use a hammer for every household repair, EMDR isn’t the only available tool.

When it comes to addressing negative beliefs about ourselves, and when it comes to healing from traumatic experiences, EMDR can be a very valuable and useful tool, indeed!

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