If you’ve been paying much attention to the world of pop psychology lately, you’ve likely heard about EMDR. This seemingly magical process has been able to cure PTSD symptoms that had been present for over 20 years in just a few sessions. The research has been piling up in support of its efficacy, and as a result, the treatment has grown in popularity. So naturally, I needed this practice to be another tool that I added to my therapeutic tool belt. I recently completed my first weekend intensive of my EMDR basic training, and I thought I’d share my experience.
EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing, and it was discovered by Dr. Francine Shapiro in 1987. As the story goes, she was walking through the park one day and ruminating on a particularly distressing memory. The further she walked, the less the memory seemed to bother her. She concluded that her frequent eye movements as she walked through the park had an impact on her ability to process her memories, and as she developed a process for utilizing this idea, she was proven right time and time again.
As much as we know about the efficacy of EMDR, my understanding is that how EMDR works is still a bit of a mystery. The best hypothesis is that EMDR utilizes the body’s natural ability to process memories in a waking state as it does in REM sleep. Your eyes move rapidly in EMDR as they do in REM. The belief is that this impacts your ability to process a memory or an idea objectively rather than emotionally. However, the more research that has been done, the more that we have learned that tapping may be as effective as eye movements. Some will use beeps, from ear to ear, but this has been shown to be less effective, with more research.
I took my training with 2 of my favorite colleagues in Chattanooga through an organization called Trauma Recovery EMDR Human Assistance Program. Not only do they give awesome deals to trainees who work for nonprofits, they also send EMDR therapists as first responders when tragedy strikes. This started after the Oklahoma City Bombing, and they were present in Haiti after the earthquake, Thailand after the tsunami, and many other disasters throughout the U. S. The therapist who was our trainer for the weekend was from Connecticut, so it just so happened that she was one of the EMDR therapists to work with people affected by the Sandy Hook Shooting.
The course was very intensive and the process is very multidimensional, so I’ll do my best to summarize how it works, in my own words, to save some time. First off, thorough research has shown EMDR to be effective in treating phobias, panic disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, depression, attachment disorder, conduct problems and self-esteem, grief and mourning, body dimorphic disorder, sexual dysfunction, pedophilia, psychotic disorders, chronic pain, migraine headaches, phantom limb pain, and some medically unexplained physical symptoms. (Feel free to message me directly for citations.) After establishing what the client wants to over-come, the therapist will ask for the client to first envision a happy and safe place, and then, to pinpoint a memory in which this feeling is experienced as most distressing. As the client comes up with a theme for that memory and pays attention to how that creates changes in the body, the therapist will use eye movements or taps to change the way the memory is processed. This is most typically executed by a therapist instructing the client to follow the therapist’s fingers with the client’s eyes as they move left to right. Something about this process enables the subject’s brain to become desensitized to the experience. Since tapping right to left on the hand or knee has also shown to be effective, the idea is that the subject’s attention rotating from left to right has a direct effect on the how the brain processes the memory.
As the memory is presented, the therapist asks the client to come up with a negative idea that the memory makes the client feel about himself or herself. Then the therapist will ask the client to come up with an idea that the client would like to feel in the present. The therapist will introduce the client to two scales; 0-10 will represent how much distress the memory causes the client to experience, and 1-7 will represent how true the positive idea feels to the client. The therapist will ask the client to experience a memory, quantify that experience via those scales, and then have the client follow rapid eye movements repeatedly, until the client is experiencing a 0 on the first scale and a 7 on the second. After the client gets a 0 and 7 on one memory, the client will move on to another memory. Eventually, the therapist will ask for the client to process an idea that is more relevant to the present. Finally, the therapist will have the client process a potential trigger for the same feeling in the future. It may take as many as 8 sessions, but the goal is to come to 0 and 7 on every idea. Ideally, by that time, what was once a trigger for a trauma may just be an objective memory.
That may have seemed like a lot of information, but I wanted to explain what actually goes on in a session. It was first explained to me as, “Your therapist waves his fingers in front of your eyes, and somehow, you feel better.” It should be noted that one benefit of the process is that, if your therapist is clever enough in his or her execution of the process, the client doesn’t have to feel like they are reliving something horrible trauma. You can start by focusing on fundamental feelings or themes rather than vivid details of an experience. This enables the client to process without being retraumatized.
The best part about trainings like this is, getting to put what you are learning into practice. Eventually, we split up into groups of 3, where at some point everyone got to be the therapist, the client, and the observer. While the training facilitators heavily encouraged us to put everything we had into this process, my group of three unanimously decided that we didn’t feel like unpacking out deepest, darkest baggage. The experiences we each had were profound, all the same. I can only speak to my own.
I have this weird and semi-specific fear of really high and steep angles. If I can’t find a clear horizon line, or if I get the feeling that one slip and I’ll be sliding or tumbling for a long time, this horrible feeling of vertigo over-comes me. This fear has presented itself when I have had to cycle down a long and steep hill or drive on a steep road without a guardrail. The memory that I had that best represented this fear was actually a dream. I once had a dream that I woke up on a mattress on top of the St. Louis Arch, and the only way off was sliding down. Once I hit the ground, I woke up in a cold sweat, and this memory was the most triggering idea I could start with. After processing the experience in my body (my temperature rose and my heart started to race), and doing a few cycles of eye movements and taps combined, the nightmare eventually became an almost comical memory in my mind.
During our training, we must have looked like a bunch of magicians or orchestral conductors waving our hands back and forth. If you’ve had curiosities or even skepticism about the subject, I’d encourage you to try it for yourself. Since it’s commonly used for horrible traumas and fears, a thought that crosses many peoples’ minds is “maybe I haven’t struggled with anything dramatic enough to merit a treatment like this.” Through my experience, you’d likely be surprised. Whatever sadness, anxiety, or pain you may be experiencing, EMDR may be the perfect tool for finding relief.