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What is EMDR- Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing?

Jackie Gamble, MA, LPCC-S
Insight Clinical Counseling and Wellness

Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR) is definitely a name for a therapy that seems intimidating, confusing, and what are all of these words anyways? Sometimes, even remembering the order of the acronym is difficult. EDMR, EMRD, EDM (wait, that’s a music genre?).

Regardless, don’t stop reading because EMDR therapy is something valuable to learn about. What does it look like? How does it work? Is it just for trauma/PTSD?

In order to understand how EMDR works, we really have to understand the way the brain works. Essentially, EMDR is trying to help our brains communicate better. When we experience high emotions our brains rewire themselves sometimes in a way where we get ‘stuck’. To simplify there are 3 parts heavily focused on: (1) the amygdala (the fire alarm), (2) the hippocampus (memories), and the (3) prefrontal cortex (what we’re doing with our emotions/behaviors in the here and now). What happens when we experience traumatic events/high emotions is that after the events have occurred, our fire alarm (amygdala) keeps setting off alarms (fight, flight, freeze) when a trigger or memory pops up. Have you ever thought, ‘Why am I freaking out right now?’ or ‘Why can’t I get over this?’, it can be like our sense of logic has been high-jacked and we can’t make it stop.

EMDR uses what’s called bi-lateral stimulation (BLS) to help these 3 parts better communicate. How does this work?

Have you ever gone for a walk with a friend and found that it is easier to talk? Or maybe when you’re doing chores around the house, riding a bike, dancing, etc. that sometimes you might be able to feel calmer, talk or think easier? These are all day to day examples of BLS.

In EMDR, there are options to duplicate these types of experiences where we are feeling sensations moving back and forth from the left to right sides of our bodies. EMDR is called E(eye)MDR because it originally and still is used by having a client move their eyes laterally to follow a light bar in the office or the therapist’s hand/finger. Another form of BLS in the office is what is called ‘tappers/buzzers’ where the client holds little devices in their hands that buzz back and forth. Some therapists may also use physical tapping, or client self-tapping where the client or therapist will physically tap on client’s knees or the client will tap themselves (butterfly tapping). The counselor and the client can discuss which form of BLS works for them and their comfortability.

So why are we buzzing and tapping and tracking light bars?! Ok, so the BLS is another way it helps our brain stay calm (maybe a little distracted) while we process either in our minds or aloud with the therapist the aspects of what may be troubling us (could be past events, emotions, thoughts). Similar to how going for a walk makes it easier to talk or think. The coolest part of all of this is that it is science! This stuff isn’t just something us therapists made up, there is extensive research on its effectiveness over decades now and can be used for a variety of client concerns and diagnoses! (It also takes at least 60 hours of training and consultation for a therapist to be certified in EMDR on top of their regular training and continuing education).

Now, if EMDR can help those 3 parts of the brain (amygdala, hippocampus and prefrontal cortex) communicate better and re-link properly in a calmer way with the help of bi-lateral stimulation (BLS) we can make some progress on those things that feel ‘stuck’. We can help our brains desensitize the emotions connected to the memories, or find the negative thoughts that we’ve linked with those negative experiences and find ways to resolve or improve them. Using the BLS in the office also means that it can make it easier to talk about things in the therapy office that typically may seem WAY too hard to talk about even in therapy. It’s also meaningful to say that the connections that are made are all the client’s own connections, not the therapist’s interpretations. Our own minds can heal themselves!

Another aspect of EMDR is that you’re talking less than in traditional talk therapy. During the BLS you’re processing in your own mind, and briefly can share what pops up during pauses in the BLS. For some people, this makes using EMDR a treatment option that is less scary than feeling like you have to talk about ‘all the bad stuff’ out loud.

EMDR has shown to be helpful with multiple disorders (and ages) in addition to trauma (PTSD) including: anxiety, panic attacks, depression and bipolar disorders, chronic illness, grief/loss, substance use, and dissociative disorders. Each therapist will have different specialties and strengths and may use different styles of BLS and approaches with EMDR. EMDR can be used in addition to talk therapy sessions and can be used in a typical session length time (45-90min).

Here are some quotes from some of our EMDR trained therapists at Insight about how they’ve experienced EMDR to be effective with their clients:

‘Clients report to me that when they think back on the memory or trauma they no longer notice the heavy emotions that used to be overwhelming. They say it’s a weird, but good feeling to look back and realize that the event or trauma no longer has as much power.’

– Amy Nash LPCC-S

‘I just started working on reprocessing with my clients since I am newer to the EMDR game. One thing that I feel is coming from a lot of my clients is their result of reprocessing is “freeing;” for them. A couple of other clients reported to me that they like the idea of EMDR because they are actually feeling results happening in their brain and body which is different from regular talk therapy where there may be some time before experiencing any results.’

– Alexis Volger, LPC

‘I waited a while to even get trained in EMDR because I was concerned my clients would think it was too unusual, but the research and my client’s experiences are proving working through what feels unusual is definitely worth it! My clients have reported reports of ‘lightness’ after a processing session, or overwhelming new connections that they feel they never would’ve made without the assistance of the bilateral stimulation. Without a doubt, I have seen clients make substantial progress quicker than traditional talk therapy in particular with trauma.’

– Jackie Gamble LPCC-S

‘I have seen some clients experience relief of symptoms through EMDR rather quickly. Clients have been surprised by the relief they feel in their body because they were unaware how much our bodies store stress and trauma. I have noticed so many of my clients come in thinking EMDR is a quick fix and in reality it is not. They are not prepared for EMDR, struggle with emotions, mind/body connection etc. It is important to note EMDR is not for everyone and not everyone experiences immediate results. This is okay. There are aspects of EMDR, including resourcing, that can be used to help build up coping skills, practice grounding, and to help improve the overall mind/body connection. If EMDR is not a good fit for someone we still have many other ways to help.’

– Jennifer Francis LPCC-S


References and Resources:

Maxfield, L. (2019). A clinician’s guide to the efficacy of EMDR therapy. Journal of EMDR Practice and Research [Editorial], 13(4), 239-246. Open access: http://dx.doi.org/10.1891/1933-3196.13.4.239


Francine Shapiro, Ph.D.

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