What is EMDR Therapy and How Does it Help Calm Anxiety
Updated: Mar 16
EMDR, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. You might have read about EMDR's benefits for those who've experienced trauma. Veterans and law enforcement and those with secondary-trauma have also benefited from this treatment. It's possible you're reading this because you’ve been told by a friend or family member that EMDR might help you. It’s possible your therapist has recommended this particular therapy, though you may still be hesitant in how rapid eye movement therapy can decrease your anxiety and trauma.
Studies show that EMDR has helped sufferers desensitize their triggers and calm anxiety. Reprocessing trauma through rapid eye movement can decrease the severity of your reaction to a stimulus.
So what is it and are you a good candidate for this modality of treatment?
Psychologist Francine Shapiro is the founder of EMDR and began her pursuit into understanding the benefits of rapid eye movement after an eye-opening experience while she was walking through a park one day in 1987. While walking, her eyes moved back and forth while she thought of these troubling experiences. She began to feel better.
By 1989 studies into this protocol began and linked it to REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep. She gave EMDR its name in 1991.
Sadly, Francine died at the age of 71 in 2019. She will definitely be missed. Those of us who carry on this wonderful technique carry the banner and enjoy sharing the many benefits of EMDR therapy.
Just like any therapy, there is no one size fits all. People are individual and can require different things, different treatments, and different journeys toward wholeness.
There have been many studies on this modality of this treatment. It is an empirically validated treatment, supported by experiments and observation. These studies have shown EMDR's effectiveness on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), trauma, flashbacks, anxiety, Panic Disorder, Depression, Attachment Disorder, just to name a few.
EMDR can be understood as an eye movement therapy. During the 90 minute session, an 8-stage protocol utilizes bilateral stimulation or BLS.
BLS, or back and forth motion of the counselor’s finger or hand as the eyes follow seem to stimulate this stored information. There are also hand tappers, headphones, or light stream you can hold in your hands or follow with your eyes. Whether you utilize the eye movements or hand tappers, the BLS allows the brain to reprocess the negative experience (memory) helping the brain to find a more adaptive resolution the client can carry forward with them. Within this process the intensity of the trigger is desensitized.
In simpler terms, these rapid eye movements help to dislodge the stuck trauma, aiding in the adaptive reprocessing, and with many clients, this will happen at a faster rate than traditional talk therapy.
Are there any surprises?
When a memory, trauma, or disturbing event is locked or stuck there is an association with the original body sensations, such as visuals, sounds, facial expressions, emotions, etc. These can surface during an EMDR session, bring on tears and tension, and can feel frightening.
These occurrences can be anticipated and if you have done your pre-EMDR work, will allow you to have a higher tolerance for this rush of emotions. Your pre-EMDR work may include learning some or many self-regulation exercises, such as deep diaphragmatic breathing, grounding, safety check, safe place, resource installation, and others your counselor might choose depending on your need.
These skills will help the client have one foot in the past and one in the present, titrating safely from disturbing memory to the here and now, and back again. This step may happen many times during a 90-minute session as the trauma or past event moves toward resolution.
Part of the work before you begin will be learning to sense what is happening in your body and being able to sit with these emotions even though they might feel distressing for you. Again, armed with your self-regulation techniques, and the knowledge that may at times feel threat or unsafe, you also have a knowing that you are indeed safe in this present moment. This is titration and pendulation, a fascinating part of Peter A. Levine's work with somatic sensing.
Many therapists describe the EMDR experience as though you are sitting on a train looking out a window. Every now and then there is a dark tunnel to pass through. If you’ve done your self-regulation work, the travel through this tunnel may not be comfortable but will be very doable.
The end results will be worth those moments in the tunnel.
Who can perform EMDR with clients?
A trained professional, one who is certified and trained in EMDR therapy.
Your counselor will help prepare you for this journey, and it is your job to learn and practice the skill-building techniques in and out of sessions. These techniques will also benefit you in other areas of your life: moments when you feel anxious, stressed, worried, stuck.
Having the tools to self-regulate will give you the power to help calm yourself rather than having your emotions control the show.
There are many qualified therapists who are skilled and trained in EMDR. Emdria.org has a directory of trained therapist along with a plethora of information about EMDR that will allow you to make an informed decision about your healthcare.
How many sessions does it take?
This can vary with each client. Everyone is different, as well as the particulars of their painful past experience and the triggers that hurl these disturbing memories into the present.
It is important to commit fully to the process in order to experience positive outcomes. Talk to your counselor about this. The relationship between you and your counselor should be that of honesty and rapport. If you do not feel comfortable sharing your feelings or fears with your therapist, it might be time to reexamine the relationship and step back until this is resolved.
Beginning the treatment only to quit after the first session, will not allow you to have maximum results. Not completing homework, practicing self-regulation skills, or completing recommended reading and journaling can also impede maximum results.
Journaling any insights, dreams, and mood changes in between sessions is important and should be shared with your counselor, both positive and negative ones.
EMDR is a wonderful and effective modality of treatment, but it is not for everyone. I want to encourage you to find out more. Work with your counselor to make sure you are a good fit for this treatment before you begin.
Blessings, and may your journey be filled with light and love,
Lori Carol Maloy