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EMDR Explained

-Maddie Quirk, LPC, RYT


Maddie demonstrating what EMDR would look like in a session.

If you have ever experienced a traumatic event you know that it can change you. Trauma, while somewhat elusive and difficult to define, is visceral. Trauma is not only a psychological response to past threats it is also very PHYSICAL. It lives in our bodies and in our nervous systems. Trauma takes up mental and emotional space and can wear on our personal relationships. It takes away from our ability to be fully present in the here and now.

While traditional talk therapy is an important piece of trauma work and lays the foundation for change and relationship building, it can only go so far. I found myself frustrated at the roadblocks I would encounter with clients who had a trauma history and made the commitment to learn as much as I could about trauma recovery. It was through this process that I discovered EMDR. 

EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. It is an evidenced based, holistic approach to trauma treatment. It works by desensitizing and neutralizing painful traumatic memories by using bilateral (left to right) eye movements. Other types of bilateral stimulation can be used such as tapping. During an EMDR session, I help my client identify a traumatic memory they would like to process. Together we identify the image attached to the memory, body sensations that arise when this memory is recalled, negative beliefs the client has about themselves due to the memory, and how disturbing it feels now. We then start the process of weaving in and out of eye movements and brief talking or “checking in.” EMDR is different than typical therapy in that it is methodical and there is a lot less talking.

While the science behind why EMDR works isn’t entirely clear cut, I’ve outlined a few commonly accepted theories as well as some of my own personal ideas behind it:

  1. Our brains WANT to heal themselves they just don’t know how. EMDR allows us to get out of our own way enough for our brains to heal themselves and create new neural pathways.
  2. The eye movements done in this process mimic the eye movements that occur during REM sleep cycles, which is when we process events that have happened during the day.
  3. EMDR allows us to INTEGRATE traumatic material. When we have a traumatic experience(s) we do not integrate the memories like we do with every day events. These memories get frozen in time and cause us to struggle with flashbacks, nightmares, being in a state of fight/flight/freeze, feeling unsafe, etc.
  4. EMDR allows us to be an observer of our traumatic event instead of reliving the event like when we do in a flashback. By being an observer of our trauma we can create new interpretations and beliefs about ourselves.
  5. It puts us in touch with where trauma is stored in our body and allows us to self-regulate.
  6. EMDR allows for an energetic and emotional release that cannot be accessed through talk therapy.

If I haven’t made it clear yet I’m a big fan of EMDR. 

This type of therapy may be right for you if you have experienced trauma and feel that it interferes with your ability to be present, the way you feel about yourself, or your relationships with others. This type of therapy works if you experience flashbacks, hypervigilance, nightmares, or anxiety/depression regarding your trauma. EMDR is a safe, effective method that should only be done by a trained professional. If you are struggling with past painful memories, I hope that this information is helpful to you. If you have tried other methods and not seen results, consider that EMDR may be a good fit.