What is EMDR?
EMDR is an eight-phase treatment which comprehensively identifies and addresses experiences that have overwhelmed the brain’s natural resilience or coping capacity, and have thereby generated traumatic symptoms and/or harmful coping strategies. Through EMDR therapy, patients are able to reprocess traumatic information until it is no longer psychologically disruptive. During this procedure, patients tend to “process” the memory in a way that leads to a peaceful resolution. This often results in increased insight regarding both previously disturbing events and long held negative thoughts about the self. For example, an assault victim may come to realize that he was not to blame for what happened, that the event is really over, and, as a result he can regain a general sense of safety in his world.
How does EMDR work?
No one knows how any form of psychotherapy works neurobiologically or in the brain. However, we do know that when a person is very upset, their brain cannot process information as it does ordinarily. One moment becomes "frozen in time," and remembering a trauma may feel as bad as going through it the first time because the images, sounds, smells, and feelings haven’t changed. Such memories have a lasting negative effect that interferes with the way a person sees the world and the way they relate to other people.
EMDR seems to have a direct effect on the way that the brain processes information. Normal information processing is resumed, so following a successful EMDR session, a person no longer relives the images, sounds, and feelings when the event is brought to mind. You still remember what happened, but it is less upsetting. Many types of therapy have similar goals. However, EMDR appears to be similar to what occurs naturally during dreaming or REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. Therefore, EMDR can be thought of as a physiologically based therapy that helps a person see disturbing material in a new and less distressing way.
The Adaptive Information Processing (AIP) Model has been constructed from observations of many people in states of psychological health and dysfunction. The model reveals that health is supported by positive and successful experiences that increasingly prepare a person to handle new challenges and that the brain is equipped to manage and process adversity. Yet, there are negative life experiences that can elude a person’s natural processing abilities. Another way to look at this is to consider a splinter lodged in one’s hand. This foreign object can cause pain and infection. Once removed, the body naturally knows how to heal. Depending on the nature of the trauma, the strengths and developmental stages of the person impacted, and the support available at the time of the traumatic event, some experiences cannot be easily moved or recovered from. This can go on to drive psychological symptoms (anxiety, fear of large crowds, negative self-talk, depression, nightmares, flashbacks, hypervigilance, etc.). Once processed or removed like the splinter, the natural process of healing from adversity can take place. The AIP model guides a clinician’s use of EMDR procedures so that the person’s own brain can complete the processing of difficult memories. This results in the reduction of suffering and symptoms and the development of new coping skills that can support psychological health.
Trauma Recovery EMDR Humanitarian Assistance Program (www.emdrhap.org)
EMDR International Association (www.emdria.org)