I began practicing EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) therapy after taking the basic course through the EMDR Institute in 2015. It is a whole different kind of tool than the other ones in my therapeutic toolbox. In traditional talk therapy, we utilize discussion to access and work through memory, thoughts, and feelings. EMDR therapy, however, seems to have a direct effect on the way the brain physiologically processes information. One useful metaphor for it is to think of your brain as a huge library: Processed experiences are like books put away in their correct locations on the shelves. You can (at will) pull down a memory from the shelf of your 10th birthday party and flip through the pages that remind you what the cake tasted like, who was present, and how it made you feel. Then, when you are done with it, you can put it back on the shelf where it belongs and not be bothered by it.
Unprocessed experiences, however, are like books strewn around on the library floor, tripping you against your will and causing damage. EMDR therapy seems to be able to help you pick up those strewn books, one by one (or group by group), flatten out the pages, repair the covers, and locate their correct placement on the shelves so that they are no longer in your way and causing havoc.
EMDR therapy appears to reprocess thoughts, images, and sensations similar to the way REM (rapid eye movement) sleep does during naturally occurring dream states. Therefore, EMDR can be thought of as a physiologically based therapy that helps a person recall disturbing material in a new and less distressing way. When a person has access to normal REM sleep states, they go to bed with the day’s events in mind (some of which may be disturbing) and, in their sleep, process those events such that when they awake in the morning, the problem itself has not changed, but the way they think about it has. People with trauma and anxiety disorders tend to have sleep disorders as well. Without appropriate sleep, the day’s events pile up over time. EMDR may be assisting the brain in doing the work of REM while a person is awake and conscious.
When people hear about EMDR, what they usually hear about are the eye movements (we call it bilateral stimulation). That particular phase of treatment (metaphorically speaking) is like riding a train. The client “boards the train” with a traumatic memory and then, once the bilateral stimulation begins, they are instructed to simply notice (without judgment or attempt to analyze) what is passing through their mind like it is “scenery passing by” from the vantage point of a moving train.
Before we get to reprocessing the traumatic memories through bilateral stimulation, however, there are a number of very important phases to complete first. If you would like to learn more about EMDR, please visit the EMDRIA website. They have a great explanation about the process here.