Although it sounds like vision therapy, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is more about your outlook than how to see. The connection between eye movements and emotional memory are tapped to call an emotional response to trauma that plagues you like a broken record.
What is EMDR?
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a type of integrative psychotherapy approach to treating stress caused by traumatic experiences that helps clients reprocess the traumatic information in order to help them overcome related disorders, such as PTSD.
In EDMR treatment, your therapist will present you with eight phases. As you progress through the process, your anxiety lessens. EMDR can be the first step in addressing mental health disorders caused by trauma such as post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). After mastery of the eye movement exercises, you learn to use the eye movement-brain connection to desensitize your own stress response to any incident.
History of EMDR
EMDR was an accidental discovery of Dr. Francine Shapiro’s in the 1980s when PTSD was a relatively new diagnosis. She was taking a walk and realized the disturbing thoughts she was experiencing suddenly disappeared. Her curiosity as a psychology graduate student drove her to investigate this chance phenomenon. After much inquiry and study, Shapiro discovered that rapid side-to-side eye movements seemed to erase disturbing thoughts.
Shapiro developed the protocol for EMDR, and after her results were studied and duplicated, she began treating people with PTSD. One of the problems PTSD presents is spontaneous and continuous traumatic thoughts stemming from their memory of the event. People with PTSD are struggling to process their emotions surrounding a traumatic incident. Their brains get stuck in a destructive thought pattern and play it over and over again. It is not unusual for people suffering from PTSD to experience more anxiety from their continual mental replays than they did from the original trauma, escalating their condition.
EMDR was successful in treating PTSD. With the therapy, the true emotions from the trauma could be processed, and the repetitive negative thoughts could be stopped. Using the same connection between eye movement and memory, EMDR is now applied to other mental illnesses as a means of processing the underlying emotional triggers.
What Is EMDR Used to Treat?
The primary use of EMDR is to treat PTSD, which is an emotional disorder related to trauma. Whether you experience or witness a trauma, you could potentially develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. However, the condition does not always develop right away. Sometimes PTSD presents months or even years after the incident — when something you see or hear suddenly triggers memories of the trauma.
Although it is a fairly new diagnosis, PTSD is more common than you might expect. Most people associate it with military service, as that was the where it was first discovered and researched. While there are a number of military veterans who suffer from PTSD, there are many other events, in addition to war, that can cause this disorder.
Any incident that is deeply disturbing or results in physical injury can be considered a trauma. The most subtle traumas, and possibly the most destructive, are those that do not result in physical injury. Witnessing a trauma may leave you physically unharmed, but it can be detrimental your mental health.
People tend to give priority to injuries they can see, and for this reason, mental health issues resulting from trauma often go undiagnosed and untreated. By recognizing that trauma does not necessarily result in physical, observable injury, it is easier to know when to look for potential mental health issues.
There are many types of traumatic experiences you may have in a lifetime:
- Loss of a loved one
- Natural disaster
- Car accident
- Sexual assault
- Childhood abuse
- Domestic abuse
- Violent crime
Exposure to trauma, especially in childhood, increases your risk of several mental illnesses. Addiction is one of the most prevalent problems among people who experience trauma. It may start as a means of escaping that terrible broken record in your head, but it doesn’t take long for recreational drug use or self-medication to turn into an addiction. The guilt and shame of witnessing a trauma and keeping it a secret or not being able to stop it and the destruction it caused can be eventually be compounded by the guilt and shame of addiction or other mental disorders.
Unresolved trauma issues can also develop into eating disorders, anxiety or depression. Many people with borderline personality disorder and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) can relate their condition to an underlying trauma. EMDR can be an effective part of the overall treatment plan for any of these conditions and any other that has an underlying emotional trauma trigger.
Emotional trauma can also contribute to depression, anxiety, and a number of other mental health disorders. Treating the underlying cause - the traumatic event - can help you down the path to mental wellness.
What Is an EMDR Session Like?
Most of us are apprehensive about new experiences. If you are struggling with anxiety or an extreme emotional disorder, trying something new can be debilitating and scary.
While facing your past trauma can be difficult, EMDR is not painful and involves almost no physical activity; it does not even require anyone to touch you.
Like talk therapy modalities, EMDR can be emotional. Of course, when you are dealing with trauma, emotions are going to come up. How does EDMR work? EMDR is designed to limit your emotional response, and the sessions progress slowly to prepare you to face your emotions. What you experience in your EMDR sessions should not be as emotionally painful as the flashbacks you are having or other emotional disturbances you experience.
EMDR is administered in a therapist’s office like other talk therapy treatments. It’s in a comfortable environment, is non-invasive and does not involve any medication. The therapist directs you through some discussion and eye movement exercises. You develop trust in the therapist and the treatment, and these sessions become a safe space and time for you to relax. Eventually, you will be able to identify and talk about the incident without extreme anxiety symptoms.
EMDR is not the same as talk therapy in that it does not ultimately rely on an in-depth discussion of your traumatic incident to be effective. You will be brought to a point where you can talk about the incident without extreme pain, but the desensitization of EMDR does not come from talking through your emotions over and over again. Your discussion of the incident in your EMDR sessions will zero in on the thoughts it triggers and the emotional connections. These points are handled one at a time, so as not to become overwhelming.
The 8 Phases of EMDR Therapy
Therapists who are trained in EMDR have a specific protocol to follow, which helps them keep these sessions on track and clients moving forward at their own pace.
EMDR progresses through eight phases:
This is the initiation phase where the therapist gets to know you and understand your problem. You will talk about your history and the symptoms you are experiencing. The traumatic incidents from your past may be clear to you, or they may be discovered through these discussions. It is not unusual to bury emotional experiences in your subconscious and not realize when they are the underlying reason for current mental health issues.
In this phase, the therapist will develop a treatment plan that will help guide you through EMDR in a way that addresses your particular needs.
With a treatment plan in place, you will begin to learn the eye movement exercises that make up EMDR. You will have a chance to see in a safe way how these eye movements can change your thought patterns. You will begin working with disturbing thoughts and memories that you can handle. The therapist will guide you through EMDR while you are recalling upsetting incidents that are not as emotionally deep-seated as the ones you will eventually tackle.
In this phase, you will learn how to use EMDR in your daily life if something emotionally upsetting happens. This will give you practice with the technique and prepare you for the emotional work you will do.
This is the assessment phase, during which you will begin to look at your target trauma. Working with the therapist, you will be directed to think of one moment or snapshot from your most traumatic incident, the target of this therapy. You only have to visualize the trauma for a moment, so the emotional response can be controlled. You will assign a self-deprecating statement to the snapshot moment, and your statement will connect the incident to the negative emotions it brings up for you. Then, you will replace that negative statement with a positive one. Your statements might be, “I am weak,” and “I am strong.”
You will be asked to assess your belief in the second statement based on a scale of one to seven. You will also associate a physical feeling with those negative statements at this phase in the treatment.
In this phase, the actual desensitizing takes place. Using the statements and assessments from phase three, you will go through eye movement exercises and become desensitized to your target incident. As the emotional response lessens, other related incidents may be added to the therapy.
Through reprocessing, you will notice your assessment numbers decrease until they indicate you are experiencing no emotional disturbance from the incident.
With the extreme negative emotions gone, you can work on the positive outcomes from your target incident. In this phase, you will work with those positive statements you made in phase three.
This part of the therapy attempts to install those ideas in your brain, so you believe them and feel them. If there is something in those statements that is not true, you will develop a plan to make the changes necessary so it can be true.
This body scan phase is important to be sure the residual physical effects of the extreme emotions have been addressed. Sometimes we hide emotions in our bodies, so we don’t have to deal with them. You will be directed to scan your body to look for tension when you are recalling the target incident.
Your recollection should be much more comfortable now that the desensitization has taken place. Any remaining physical tension will be addressed in this phase of the EMDR treatment.
Closure is used with every EMDR session throughout the entire therapy. It is a way of bringing the client back to reality and feeling in control outside of the therapy session. One of the biggest issues in PTSD and other trauma-related conditions is the lack of control people experience around trauma. EMDR is a means of regaining control instead of feeling like emotions are constantly pushing you around.
At the end of each session, you will conduct mental and breathing exercises to calm any tensions that were raised during the session. That way, you’ll feel comfortable going back to your daily lives until the next session.
Each time a new session is started, a reevaluation process is performed to see how the results of the last session have lasted. New incidents that need to be addressed are discussed and assessed at this time. It is essential to go through this phase with each new course of EMDR to be sure the relief experienced as part of the EMDR treatment remains. This is like a mini check-up before going forward with more EMDR work.
During EMDR treatment, each phase lasts for several sessions, and most of your time will be spent in Phase 3. You need to complete one phase before moving on to the next, so if it takes a little extra time for you, that’s okay. The therapist modifies the depth and length of each session for your specific needs.
EMDR therapy is customizable to any situation or any type of trauma, regardless of how severe the symptoms are. You may think your symptoms are not severe enough to warrant EMDR therapy, but that’s not true. EMDR can be effective in relieving the emotional issues resulting from trauma, even if those issues have not escalated yet.
How Can EMDR Help Women Who Have Suffered a Traumatic Experience?
EMDR is an effective means of treating the extreme emotions that result from trauma. These emotions, if unprocessed, can lead to mental illness and physical disease. EMDR was originally used to treat PTSD, one of the most dangerous emotional conditions. The unprocessed emotions that lead to PTSD cause hostility, flashbacks, insomnia, and self-destructive behaviors.
Although PTSD is usually associated with military personnel, there are many incidents of PTSD that are not related to combat. Recent research into the effects of trauma reveal that any form of trauma can result in PTSD. Not everyone gets PTSD, and it can be hard to predict who will develop it.
Women are actually more likely to develop PTSD than men, partly because they process emotions differently. When exposed to the same trauma, 10% of women and only 4% of men will develop PTSD. Women are more likely to blame themselves for a trauma than direct their anger at the perpetrators. Sexual assault is the cause of more PTSD cases than any other trauma, and women experience sexual assault more than men do.
Not everyone who witnesses or is involved in a trauma develops PTSD. There are some conditions that make women more susceptible to PTSD as the result of an incident:
- Sustained injuries during the incident
- Lacked solid social support structure
- Involved in life-threatening traumatic incident
- Reacted severely to the incident at the time
- Had a history of anxiety or depression or other mental illness
- Victimized by sexual assault
Any of these conditions can set a woman up to develop PTSD as a result of trauma. Women also experience PTSD differently than men. While men tend to become outwardly angry and aggressive, women are more likely to retreat into themselves and become depressed or self-destructive. They tend to turn anger inward on themselves rather than direct it outward to those around them. Women experiencing PTSD may be extremely jumpy and try to avoid things that remind them of the trauma.
Other Problems Trauma May Cause for Women
Several mental illnesses that are more likely to occur in women are trauma-related, too. Eating disorders, for example, can be serious problems for women — men also get them, but not nearly as often. They might be a women’s expression of anger being turned in on herself. A traumatic incident, or a series of reoccurring traumatic events such as child abuse, could cause or worsen an eating disorder.
Trauma causes many women to internalize negative messages about themselves. The resulting mental illness is often a response to that negative message being played over and over again in her head. The emotion that the negative message conveys cannot be processed, so the broken record plays on, causing mental and physical destruction.
Anxiety and depression can be the outgrowth of unprocessed emotions from trauma. Incidents that cause emotional pain, whether it is accompanied by physical injury or not, can leave women feeling vulnerable and unsafe. A realistic sense of anxiety can grow into a disorder because of constant reminders of danger. Once you have experienced a dangerous situation and not processed your emotions from it fully, you suddenly see danger everywhere. The resulting anxiety can be debilitating.
The most destructive part of trauma and its unresolved emotions may be the residual negative messages. Women seem to be particularly susceptible to negative messages that turn their anger inward against themselves. Those internalized messages in addition to societal norms can, for some, push the narrative that women need to be perfect, which can develop into OCD or another mental health disorder.
OCD can also be related to anxiety and protecting yourself from danger. The idea is that if you do everything a certain way, check it and recheck it, nothing bad will happen. In reality, you cannot prepare for every contingency, but people suffering from OCD can be stuck in a preparatory thought pattern.
Following a trauma — the death of a loved one, a sexual assault or anything else that could be disturbing — it may be a good idea to seek professional help for counseling. Should you find that you or a loved one is suffering from severe depression, anxiety, or post traumatic stress disorder after a traumatic event, more focused therapy may be necessary. An inpatient treatment center that specializes in mental wellness may be the best path to healing.
It’s Okay to Ask for Help
Asking for help can be hard, but it is easier than dealing with a mental disorder by yourself. Most mental disorders do not resolve themselves over time. They usually get worse and give rise to other situations that impact your life. At Brookhaven Retreat, our professional staff can evaluate your situation and recommend a treatment plan that meets your needs.
Reach out today for help overcoming trauma and processing the related emotions at Brookhaven Retreat.