Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is more than just a therapeutic technique; it’s an entire theory of human psychology. And, without trying to, it incorporates tenets from many different evidence-based schools of psychotherapy such as Psychodynamic and Cognitive-Behavioral (CBT).
Because it’s a relatively rapid treatment, it can accomplish much more efficiently some therapeutic tasks, such as reducing stress, anxiety, and symptoms arising from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Theory of Symptoms
EMDR is a treatment that is based on the idea that negative life experiences can become maladaptively encoded in particular neural networks in the brain. ‘Maladaptive”’ in this case simply means that the experience is either given more weight relative to other experiences, or blocks healthy neurological access to other, more positive experiences.
A woman who is sexually abused as a child might feel—even as an adult who has successfully navigated many life challenges—that she is somehow weak or powerless. A man who was chronically neglected by his parents might have trouble accessing a sense of self even though he has good friendships, a distinct personality and a successful career.
Though these negative experiences are in the past, they become etched into our brains in ways that form templates for the future: how we see ourselves and others, how we behave, what feelings we have access to, etc. This can actually prevent subsequent positive experiences to be stored along with the negative memories in a way that forms an accurate picture.
EMDR works by helping you access the negative experience having you recall the sensory aspects of the memory – image, sound, smell, touch, and sensation – as well as negative beliefs you had during the event. Using bilateral stimulation (rapid eye movements, sounds or tapping on either side of the body), the machinery in the brain begins to move: allowing unprocessed aspects of the event to arise, be felt, fade away, and give rise to new memories or associations.
The bilateral stimulation helps your right and left hemispheres communicate with one another around a particular memory, which helps integrate the somatic and holistic aspects of the experience (stored in the right brain) with the narrative parts of the experience (left brain). It then helps integrate more positive memories or resources into the negative ones, which can provide astonishing relief and a sense of that memory truly being in the past.
Sometimes PTSD is described as “having the right feelings, just at the wrong time”. With EMDR, you can finally release the hold those old feelings have on you.
A great deal of research has been done on the efficacy of EMDR, which is now well-established, and its uses are being expanded to successfully treat even those with co-occuring mental illnesses such as schizophrenia. If you’re interested in learning more, check out EMDRIA’s website.