Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing
UNDERSTANDING TRAUMA IN A DIFFERENT WAY
The definition of trauma is, "a deeply distressing or disturbing experience." The reality of psychological trauma is it is much more complicated than that. Trauma can occur anytime our brains are overwhelmed and unable to process incoming information in an effective way. This means that traumatic responses are as individualized as our pasts are, and often linked to much less obvious times of stress than we might expect.
Treating traumatic events with EMDR addresses both psychological and physiological components of our experiences. It is believed that when traumatic incidents occur, stress hormones prevent our brains from fully processing information, creating maladaptive neural pathways and "freezing" the information in its original anxiety-producing form. In this "frozen" form, this information contributes to maladaptive reactions. These reactions can include post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) which is characterized by intrusive thoughts, nightmares, and flashbacks. Other trauma reactions include anxiety, depression, isolation, and other forms of emotional disturbance.
EMDR seeks to desensitize traumatic events by using a three-pronged approach to address past memories, present disturbances, and future actions. Special eye movements help resolve trauma reactions by allowing the "frozen" information to be processed and integrated to adaptive neural pathways. This means appropriate emotions, understanding, and perspective inform day-to-day life, replacing the negative emotions, feelings, and body sensations that led to distress.
Processing Without Talking
In EMDR, processing is different from talking about traumatic experiences. EMDR processing refers to setting up a safe state where learning is possible, and the brain can reprocess information it already has so that it is stored in a more useful way.
During EMDR treatment, clients are asked to recall an image of the trauma and become aware of the negative emotions, negative self-belief, and physical sensations associated with the trauma. These factors are considered together and are referred to as "the target." While holding the target in mind, clients are instructed to move their eyes quickly back and forth, left to right, following the therapist's fingers. The therapist checks in with the client's experience periodically, assessing reprocessing progress.
Sometimes alternative methods of left-right stimulation are used. Common alternatives include tapping on hands or knees, or using vibrating paddles that the client holds. This allows for processing to be individualized to the client's needs. The procedure continues until the target has been desensitized and the negative self-belief has been replaced with positive self cognition. Additional steps might include the client keeping a log of any anxiety-provoking incidents or memories that surface, with the goal of resolving those memories in future sessions.