De-Mystifying EMDR

Have you heard of EMDR? EMDR stands for Eye-Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. Totally clear right? Maybe not! My hope with this post is to de-mystify EMDR and unpack some of the myths. I first heard about EMDR when I was in my Masters program. It sounded like this mystical approach that I initially associated with hypnosis, since I heard that “eye movement” was involved. When I dug deeper I discovered that it was not mystical at all, but in fact was an evidence-based approach that had been shown to be effective in treating trauma, ptsd, mood and anxiety disorders, low self-esteem, phobias, grief, loss and more. Also, it doesn’t take much digging to quickly find out…it’s not hypnosis at all. :)

When I opened my private practice I would occasionally send clients to do EMDR when blocks would show up in our work that I thought EMDR could be useful in helping a client process and move through. The results were undeniable, but yet I was still hesitant to do the training myself. I just couldn’t picture myself asking my clients to “follow my fingers.” Then after experiencing a loss and associated trauma, I decided to try it out myself. Sitting on the other side and experiencing it first hand was the push I needed to get trained. I couldn’t believe how powerful it was, how empowering it was, and how quickly I was able to process and integrate experiences that could have taken months in therapy to process.

My hope with this post is to de-mystify EMDR for you and de-bunk some of the myths, so that maybe YOU can take the step to get the support you deserve.

EMDR is an 8 phase structured approach to psychotherapy that taps into the body’s natural healing processes. When you break a bone and go to the doctor, what does the doctor do? They put your broken arm in a cast and basically say, “don’t move it…your body can heal it on it’s own.” Our brain has a similar processing system that naturally moves towards healing and health, but can sometimes become blocked or overwhelmed. Let’s say that when you were 6 years old you had an overwhelming physical or emotional experience that was difficult for you to process or understand. Our brain’s job is to protect us, and when we have overwhelming experiences our brain will look for other connections in our environment or experiences with the aim to protect us. Sometimes the little protector in our brain keeps us from being able to fully integrate an experience, and can create a memory network that blocks us from being able to process in a healthy and adaptive way. Sometimes the experiences or memories that block us from moving towards healing are really clear, sometimes clients will be surprised to discover the memories that are connected to their current suffering. Let me share a quick synopsis of the 8 phase protocol for EMDR to give you a sense of what you might expect in this approach:

Phase 1: Assessment. In this initial stage we explore your current triggers and struggles, and your therapist will ask specific questions to unpack the history of these triggers. Your therapist will also assess if you’d be a good fit at this time for EMDR.

Phase 2: At this point your therapist makes sure you have tangible tools to help you regulate and manage difficult emotional experiences before re-processing happens. This might look like mindfulness, visualizations, and stress reduction techniques that help you self-regulate, get grounded, and reclaim a sense of agency.

Phase 3-6: These stages are where a lot of the deep work of EMDR happens. Your therapist will help you identify a target to re-process, depending on your situation this could be the earliest memory associated with the trigger that was identified. With your therapist’s support, you will identify the image, negative beliefs about yourself, physical sensations, and the emotions associated with this memory. You will also identify the thoughts you’d prefer to believe about yourself. The therapist will help you connect with the targeted memory, and will then use sets of bi-lateral stimulation. Bi-lateral stimulation can either be eye-movement, tapping, tones, or buzzers that stimulate a sensory experience of going from left to right, diagonal, or side to side. This bi-lateral stimulation mimics a similar process that happens during REM (rapid eye-movement) sleep, which is a period of sleep where processing typically occurs. The beautiful thing about EMDR is that this processing is happening while you’re awake and in control, and with the support and presence of a licensed professional.

Phase 7: The therapist helps close a session, and supports the client in logging any insights that occur between sessions. This is also an opportunity to reconnect with any grounding or self-regulating tools that were taught.

Phase 8: This is where we connect back in, check in on progress, and decide on next steps. When a client no longer reports disturbance, and feels connected to a positive belief about self when recalling events, and has no uncomfortable physical sensations when thinking about a memory…then we know the work is coming to a close.

Here are a few myths about EMDR that I would like to de-bunk right now!

1. EMDR is woo-woo. Nope! Let me know stop you right there. EMDR has been named as evidence based and has had more than 30 positive randomized controlled trial studies to back it up. There’s nothing woo-woo about it.

2. EMDR is a form of hypnosis. Nope! You are fully awake and present and in control during EMDR, so don’t let the eye-movement part fool you!

3. Anyone can get trained in EMDR. Nope! At this time, only licensed or pre-licensed mental health professionals and some qualified healthcare providers can get trained in EMDR and basic training is required. EMDRIA.org is a great resource to find out if you qualify!

4. EMDR is a quick fix. While EMDR is a very robust tool, this isn’t what I would consider a “quick fix.” Some people move through the process really quickly, and this depends on the situation, readiness, and the history and extent of the trauma.

5. EMDR forces you to face your trauma. The myth here is the word “force.” Ideally your therapist is working with you to make sure you’re ready so that you’re not ever feeling re-traumatized and tools are put in place to put agency in your hands during the process.

6. EMDR is only for trauma. While EMDR was initially developed to treat PTSD, as mentioned earlier it can really helpful for a variety of presenting issues such as: anxiety, depression, phobias, self-esteem issues, attachment issues, fertility and peripartum issues and more.

I hope this helped de-mystify EMDR for you and de-bunked some myths! You can hear me talk more about EMER on my instagram page in the story highlights titled EMDR! If you’re interested in finding an EMDR therapist in your area you can find a list of trained clinicians here! If you’re interested in doing this work with me, you can reach out through my contact page.

Cassidy Freitas