Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR) Explained

What Is EMDR Therapy and How Can It Be Used?
Close up of a blue eye symbolizing EMDR

EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing. It is a type of therapy used to treat a variety of mental health issues. EMDR involves reprocessing memories that have essentially become stuck in the brain. Sessions involve stimulating the hemispheres of the brain through visual, auditory, or tactile means until the memory is less disturbing. More positive thoughts and beliefs replace the prior negative thoughts and belief.

Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR) is a therapy technique that has been used for years with adults and children to treat a variety of psychological and mental health issues, with a relatively high degree of success. Some of these include:

EMDR can be a good option for clients struggling with issues such as depression, anxiety, PTSD, and bullying.

How was EMDR developed?

EMDR was originally developed by Dr. Francine Shapiro in the late 1980s and has evolved into an accepted form of treatment for many mental health problems in our society today. EMDR involves reprocessing traumatic and disturbing memories in such a way that an individual is able to function more effectively when they think about or are reminded about the issue that originally caused them a great deal of distress. EMDR is a physiologically-based form of therapy that helps individuals process previously disturbing information in a new way. EMDR helps with many other mental health concerns, as well.

How does it work?

The initial sessions are necessary for the therapist to fully understand the nature of the issue and to determine whether EMDR is an appropriate course of treatment. EMDR sessions last about 60 minutes, similar to a typical therapy session. The issue being addressed will likely determine how many EMDR sessions may be necessary to alleviate the distress associated with the issue. EMDR also incorporates aspects of other therapies, such as cognitive and behavioral therapies. The process of EMDR involves reprocessing memories that have essentially become stuck in the brain. The session involves stimulating the hemispheres of the brain through visual, auditory, or tactile means.

Is EMDR a good option for kids?

EMDR is often a great treatment option for kids with the help of their therapist. When something bad happens to us, the whole body remembers it. Negative thoughts can get stuck in places where talk therapy just can’t reach. Kids might not be able to express traumatic or disturbing memories the same way adults can. EMDR therapy is often utilized for both children and adult clients at The Village. Two therapists who are advocates of EMDR are St. Cloud Regional Program Supervisor Kristie Majette and Grand Forks Clinical Supervisor Janet Amundson

“I truly believe every person who comes in this door, kids especially, have the ability to get through whatever they are facing,” Kristie says. “EMDR allows people to heal their trauma, and they actually don’t have to say it to me if they don’t want to. They can just say ‘it got scary.’ But they can keep healing because it’s all happening with the bilateral stimulation and their brain.”

For kids, trauma may be an isolated event, like an accident or a loved one’s death, or it can be chronic, such as physical or sexual abuse or caregivers who struggle with addiction or mental illness. “We’re seeing so much more of it, more complex trauma, and trauma at younger ages,” Janet says.

People may think kids under age 5 don’t remember traumatic experiences, but that’s not true, Janet says. “Their body remembers, but they can’t express it, so it comes out in play or comes out in behavior or as anxiety.” Janet describes trauma this way: We each have a filing cabinet, and every day your memories get filed away. Trauma, because it’s so intense, places a big rock in front of the cabinet. Files start to stack up around the room, until it’s full. EMDR helps clear out that room and place the files where they’re supposed to go. “It teaches your brain how to get this memory unstuck from ‘it’s still happening’ to ‘it doesn’t have control of me anymore, it’s just a memory,’ ” Kristie says.

A variety of tools are used in EMDR. Janet often uses stories, coloring, beeping headphones, and buzzers. If clients don’t like the buzzers, Kristie will tap the back of their hands with their permission. Switching the buzzing sensation, beeping, or tapping between the left and right sides of the body mimics the back-and-forth eye movement that happens during REM sleep, when the brain processes memories for the day.

Child in EMDR therapy coloring with a therapist

Does it really work?

A growing body of research has shown the effectiveness of EMDR. While the technique appeared to be most effective with post-combat veterans in its earliest stages, it has been found to be effective with numerous issues and problems. The American Psychiatric Association and the Department of Veterans Affairs & Department of Defense are two organizations who recommend it as a preferred treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder. Additional research can be found at www.emdria.org.

Does The Village offer EMDR?

The Village Family Service Center is excited to offer the services of a number of trained clinicians. This offers hope and healing to countless people who have experienced traumatic events in their lives and who have not responded to traditional therapy modalities. For more information about EMDR, counseling, or other Village services, call the location nearest you or contact us online.

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