The psychologist Francine Shapiro casually discovered and developed Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing therapy in 1987. The story goes that Shapiro was walking in the woods one day and began experiencing some distressing thoughts and feelings. The psychologist found a sense of calm as her eyes began to scan the path in front of her in a back-and-forth motion. Thus began the connection that bilateral stimulation can lead to desensitization of overwhelming emotions/thoughts. The original form of bilateral stimulation in EMDR therapy is for a client to follow a clinician’s fingers going from right to left and vice versa. There are now multiple forms of effective bilateral stimulation: following a light bar with your eyes, using tappers that vibrate back and forth between each hand, tapping the hands on the legs, arms, etc. Some of these options enable the clients to close their eyes during the process. EMDR therapists strive to find which form of bilateral stimulation works best for each client.
EMDRIA: EMDR International Association shares that EMDR has been found to have positive clinical outcomes with the following disorders: PTSD, anxiety, depression, OCD, chronic pain, addiction, and other distressing life situations. EMDR is an evidence-based approach with vast research backing it up. For example, Shapiro and Forrest found that 110,000 therapists from 130 countries have successfully treated more than 7 million people with EMDR since 2016.
HOW IT WORKS
Some research says bilateral stimulation mimics the REM cycle of sleep, enabling clients to access the subconscious. In other words, it helps to get underneath defenses like dissociation, coping mechanisms, etc., to access one’s trauma better. Accessing the trauma enables the client’s brain to begin processing what happened and correctly file these traumatic memories so they do not take up as much space in the brain and nervous system. Sorting through these memories helps lower the distress tolerance of trauma and sometimes even makes the memories feel neutral. EMDR never takes away appropriate emotions, but it causes them not to have as tight of a hold on the client. Think of trauma like a splinter fragmented into a million pieces in the body. EMDR clears out the splinters bit by bit, where the memory of the trauma remains intact, but the impact of the trauma is more neutralized.
THE EMDR PROCESS
The process of beginning EMDR takes several sessions and usually involves the therapist introducing several grounding techniques to the client, as EMDR often causes traumatic memories to surface. Therapists strive to keep clients within their window of tolerance (or, in other words, to stay emotionally regulated) during this process where the client is not dissociating or becoming too activated/flooded with emotions. This is where grounding techniques also come in handy. EMDR therapists will create a target sequence plan before beginning EMDR therapy, and this is where the clinician and client collaborate on what to target first. This is usually a negative belief and memories associated with that. For example, say a child abuse survivor’s negative belief was “I am worthless,” the therapist and client would identify several memories throughout the client’s life that made them feel this negative belief was true. Then a positive or preferred belief is established along with positive memories that reinforce the positive belief, such as “I’m okay as I am.” Once EMDR therapy begins, the client will begin playing through memories that support the negative belief while some sort of bilateral stimulation occurs. The brain will begin processing and sorting through these memories. After several sessions focusing on the negative belief, the therapist and client will begin installing the positive belief.
WHAT THE BRAIN DOES IN EMDR
Life events are filed (emotionally) into our brains based on their significance. So negative experiences would be any hardship like abuse, death of a loved one, etc. EMDRIA shares that the stronger the emotions of these filed memories are, the greater their impact on our present-day perceptions, attitudes, and behaviors. This means that our past experiences intrude into our present-day lives. In 1949, Donald Hebb coined the phrase, “neurons [in the brain] that fire together, wire together.” So when traumatic memories fire off at the same time as overwhelming emotions/thoughts, it wires together as a neural pathway in the brain. These neural pathways affect how we relate to ourselves, others, and the world around us. Thankfully, neuroscience research has shown that the brain has neuroplasticity, meaning that trauma-formed neural pathways can be rewired. EMDR helps dissolve trauma’s negative impact on the brain and then changes and updates the brain with more positive or neutral beliefs and emotions regarding the trauma.