Using EMDR to Accelerate Healing
EMDR uses bilateral stimulation (eye movements, touch or sound) to help you release intense emotional reactions and put them in context. EMDR got its name, “Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing” when Francine Shapiro, the psychologist who discovered it, found herself quickly clearing a traumatic experience with spontaneous eye movements.
Although not a cure-all for everybody, I now use EMDR to help many clients accelerate their healing in a way that’s more easily tolerated than other methods. I am not alone in finding it very effective for getting at symptoms that could not be easily resolved otherwise and for producing lasting relief.
How Does EMDR Work?
EMDR is thought to work similarly to REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep, where dreaming puts events into emotional context and helps store them in memory. Some believe the dual focus of bilateral stimulation while revisiting old pain eases the intensity of exposure and helps decondition that pain. These may work in combination. Because we do not fully understand how consciousness and memory are processed by the brain, the healing mechanism of EMDR is not fully understood. But since its discovery in 1989 EMDR has been extensively studied and is now recognized as one of the standard evidence-based treatments for PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder). Many psychotherapists, including me, are finding it effective for healing a variety of other complaints that interfere with coping and emotional comfort. Think of a hot button, painful memory, flashback, relapse trigger, fear, repetitive nightmare or other emotional reaction that gets in your way. These kinds of things are often effectively addressed with EMDR.
How is it Done?
Bilateral Stimulation (BLS) is essential to this method but does not stand alone. The BLS is used judiciously in combination with other psychotherapy methods, like asking how the target issue is triggered and helping you place it in the context of the rest of your life. When EMDR was first invented, therapists would move their hands in front of the client’s face to guide eye movements. But repetitive stress quickly intervened and we now use simple mechanical devices to guide eye movements or provide alternating sounds or vibration. I employ the BLS modality that’s comfortable for you. My clients and I most often use gentle tactile pulsers that feel similar to a vibrating cell phone or watch. At the start of sessions, I ask you to adjust the device’s speed and intensity to the levels that feel right for you.
Combining Internal Focus and Bilateral Stimulation. Guided internal focus is the other key component of EMDR. You bring to mind the issue that’s causing trouble and I start BLS while you allow your mind to process it. The processing itself may bring up other aspects of the issue, earlier experiences that motivate the emotional reaction and past decisions or beliefs that may initiate maladaptive coping. What’s different about EMDR is that the processing happens quickly and clears the charge motivating maladaptive responses to allow the wisdom of pristine consciousness to put things in context. In this way EMDR, and any effective psychotherapy, is not just a revisiting of old pain. You may find yourself accessing levels of insight you had not known were available to you.
Establishing Safety. This powerful method is not applied without establishing effective means of safety and containment. I start by reviewing your personal history with you, what it was like growing up in your family, which experiences have contributed most to the person you are today, and what you believe are the origins of the problems that bring you to psychotherapy. I also screen you for symptom profiles that may require stabilization before EMDR is attempted, and in some cases may refer clients to other therapists for issues requiring specialized training (for instance, Dissociative Identity Disorder).
Before processing the target issue, we set up and reinforce an inner resource known as a calm, peaceful place and populate it with nurturing and protective figures of your choosing. Your associations to that place and its nurturers or protectors may be a resource we tap into to help you rest between periods of intense processing or to assist the processing itself. For instance, we may link a traumatic memory with an inner experience of having your best friend witness it with you to ease its intensity and introduce new coping skills. We may also invoke a metaphor to help you retain dual focus, such as witnessing the images you’re processing like the scenery moving by you on a train. And this healing process often happens that fast! We also establish clear signals to stop or continue the BLS to help you feel a sense of control during the processing and enhance its effectiveness.
Your first EMDR experience is scheduled as a double session to allow plenty of time to thoroughly process the issue we target to substantial discharge. I am there to guide you throughout in case you feel stuck or need other help. At the end of the session, I work with you to reduce your emotional activation so you can leave feeling well grounded and fully oriented.
Working with Memory Networks. Psychological well-being would be easy to achieve if we had complete access to the coping abilities needed, when we need them. However, memory is encoded in the brain in such a way that it is triggered by current experiences that remind us of the past through similar circumstances, intensity and emotion. Also, the intensity of some experiences stores them in fragments instead of a continuous scene. This is especially true with recent, intense trauma less than a few months in the past, where the mind may not have consolidated several shocks into one memory. For reasons like this, we often don’t have available our abilities to calmly observe and apply effective, adult coping when we most need them.
EMDR taps into those intense memory networks on purpose, so you connect with the formative experiences at the root of the network and discharge its originating intensity. In this way, it desensitizes you to the original charge and unites witnessing consciousness with formerly fragmented reactivity. Fragments of experience that were formerly dissociated from each other are remembered in context.
Sometimes EMDR is used to separate memory networks. For example, panic responses can generalize to include many situations beyond the originating experience. In such circumstances EMDR can help you discover and discharge the origin of the panic response so it’s no longer generalized and your realistic coping abilities can now come forward.
An essential part of EMDR training is learning to find and target hot spots at the root of current issues so their release will generalize and relieve current symptoms that may not need to be directly addressed.
Enhancing Strengths. Most of us are strong in some circumstances and less capable in others. As I get to know you, I identify your strengths, such as intelligence, willpower, humility or patience — and I help you bring these to situations where it’s been hard to access them. The rapid and permanent healing of hot buttons through EMDR helps you better understand the workings of your mind and renew hope. Where you no longer need to struggle against unwanted thoughts and feelings, you can now calmly choose. Then you are no longer at the mercy of outside events as the locus of control becomes increasingly available from the inside.
Minimizing Discomfort. EMDR’s bilateral stimulation focuses and accelerates the processing of painful experience faster than any other method I know. It helps you concentrate where formerly you may have felt too upset to remain consciously present with your experience. Its dual focus makes the re-experiencing of old trauma less vivid. The guidance of the therapist can bring coping abilities to bear that you might not otherwise remember in that moment. The therapist also helps you to move through the healing process at a more comfortable pace, taking breaks when needed, and staying focused on one memory network at a time. Although some processing can continue to emerge between sessions, I help you contain that reactivation by writing down new issues to address and moving these issues outward by writing them in a journal. I am also available by phone between sessions to help minimize the discomfort of working through old issues.
Checking Results. I conduct EMDR in a thorough way that includes checking results frequently within your session and also checking the week afterward. This way we can clean up any hot spots so you are truly free from unwanted reactivity.
Early Attachment Repair
Attachment-Focused EMDR TM (AF-EMDR TM) uses your inner resources to repair early attachments that may have been damaged or incompletely formed through early trauma, neglect or disruptions in the connection to parental figures. It forms new memory networks, repairs and integrates existing ones to form a more secure base for personality functioning and emotional resilience. AF-EMDR TM is an innovation developed by Laurel Parnell, Ph.D., a leading teacher, author and practitioner of EMDR therapy. I learned most of my EMDR skills from Dr. Parnell and am a member of the Parnell Institute.
What EMDR Doesn’t Do. EMDR does not change accurate perceptions of reality. For instance, if you resolve the fear from a car accident in your past, you’ll still feel unsafe if you discover you’re a passenger of someone who’s driving while intoxicated. EMDR does not put you in a trance. You are fully conscious while processing, although this may include feeling the sensations of dissociation that were present during the old event. EMDR does not suppress old memories but puts them in context. It also will not correct physical problems that contribute to psychological issues, such as ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) that may require medication.
Using EMDR in My Practice
I see EMDR as a power tool that is applied to the process of therapy. It is no more nor less than that. If you have trouble controlling anger, for instance, part of this may be due to unresolved hot buttons from a traumatic past, and these would be effectively addressed with EMDR. But you may also need to explore the stresses in your marriage or job, learn new communication skills and limit substance abuse. We would employ other therapeutic modalities and supports for this.
I’m thrilled to offer EMDR in my practice. I have completed the basic EMDR training, which was done over three long weekends starting in 2010 and included expert supervision with one of the leading EMDR teachers, Laurel Parnell, Ph.D. One of Dr. Parnell’s specialties is using EMDR to help heal wounds from early parental attachment. When needed I consult with her or one of her faculty. Although now qualified to practice EMDR without supervision I’m pursuing certification by EMDRIA (EMDR International Association), which requires additional consultation and one more training workshop.
To schedule a first appointment please select this link. Although experienced with emergencies, that is not my practice focus. As an outpatient therapist I work with people who can reliably cope, are not at risk or in crisis, do not have thoughts of self-harm, and are seeking to grow.
Parnell, L. (2007). A therapist’s guide to EMDR: Tools and techniques for successful treatment. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.
Parnell, L. (1997 ). Transforming trauma: EMDR: The revolutionary new therapy for freeing the mind, clearing the body, and opening the heart. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.
Shapiro, F. (2001). Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing: Basic principles, protocols, and procedures, 2nd. Ed. New York: The Guilford Press.
Attachment-Focused EMDR and AF-EMDR are trademarks of Laurel Parnell, Ph.D.