What exactly is EMDR therapy, and how can it help?


A quick Google search may inform you that EMDR is Eye-Movement Desensitization Reprocessing Therapy, to which most people (myself included)respond to that explanation with a “Huh?” 

Luckily, I have taken training on this therapeutic modality, so that you don’t have to rely on the ever convenient, but sometimes faulty, Google search! 

Let’s discuss what EMDR is. Initially found by Francis Shapiro somewhat through happenstance, she created her theory and began testing it on herself and clients. She quickly found that it brought almost seemingly instant relief to some of her most traumatized clients. Since then, it has been tested on many different populations, is considered “evidence-based”, and is officially recognized by the WHO and APA as one of the most effective forms of therapy for PTSD. 

More technically, EMDR is an 8 phase treatment that affects your past, present, and future. Have you ever experienced something negative, that may not even be considered a “big deal,” but it continues to bother you in some way, shape, or form? That is what we call a “maladaptive memory.” This memory, experience, situation, etc. was processed in a way in which your body still feels, in a sense, traumatized. Even if you “know” that it does not make logical sense for your thoughts, feelings, or body to respond in that way, it still does because the memory is essentially frozen in that moment and frozen in a more activated part of your brain. EMDR does not erase the memory, rather it reprocesses it so that it is more integrated and less jarring. It helps the “stuck” memory become “unstuck” (Shapiro, 2017).

EMDR uses a technique called Bilateral Dual Attention Stimulation (BLS) along with other evidence-based psychological orientations (e.g. cognitive behavioral, emotionally-focused, DBT, and psychodynamic). BLS is the process of alternating left right tracking through tone, taps, or eye movements (Shapiro, 2017). Through the use of BLS and taking associated negative thinking, emotion, and body sensations the client’s brain desensitizes him/herself from the event and then reprocesses in a way so that when the client thinks of that memory they feel neutral and/or positive and can recognize how they have grown or learned since then. This then allows the client to no longer be disturbed by the experience, but be able to move on through life with confidence and peace. We know through brain scans of before and after the EMDR intervention that the brain has physiologically rewired itself to house that memory in a more adaptive manner post EMDR. In actuality, rewiring of the brain happens in all forms of psychotherapy to some degree, but EMDR works directly with the brain’s natural processes to do this in a more effective and time efficient manner. 

At this point, you may be wondering, “Who can benefit from EMDR?” and possibly, “Is it applicable for teens?” Although initially created as a trauma treatment, EMDR is recognized as beneficial beyond just treatment of PTSD and can be used for a variety of mental health issues. Furthermore, what is considered “trauma” is highly dependent upon the person experiencing it. Trauma is simply a stressful event that then causes a person to be continually reacting out of that past event, even though they are not in the stress anymore.This can present in many different ways such as social anxiety, depression, phobias, etc. EMDR is also found to be effective not just for adults, but teens, children, and even infants! Because it is a treatment model that can be adjusted for the clients’ current developmental stage, it is an adaptable modality that can be used throughout the lifespan. For specific use with teens, EMDR is adjusted for the client’s age and, like all psychotherapy at this age, is more so for prevention than with adults. For example, if the teen is relatively well-adjusted, but suddenly experienced a highly stressful event, we can use EMDR to process that one event in the present and prevent it from creating continuous negative memory networks. EMDR can help those who have had many adverse experiences in childhood, to stressful events that just “stuck,” to even those who have just had their first highly upsetting experience.  

Personally, I have found EMDR to be a hopeful and seemingly miraculous therapy in how it can bring clients freedom from their past, to live more in the present moment, and be hopeful for the future. I am excited to bring this modality to Colorado Teen Therapy and bring a more adaptive, healed, and healthier tomorrow for our teen clients! 

If your teen is interesting in trying EMDR therapy, click HERE to schedule an intake.

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