Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing for the Treatment of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
Now that is a mouthful! I have had the honor of interviewing one of our Anxiety Connection members, Judy, about her experience with a type of psychotherapy known as Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing or EMDR. Judy has been quite pleased with how this therapy is going for her in helping her deal with past traumas. EMDR is particularly suited for treating Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD. I was fascinated to know what this therapy entails and how it is different from other types of therapy used to help those who have suffered from trauma.
Before I present my interview with Judy I am going to give you a brief definition of EMDR from The EMDR Institute:
“ EMDR is a phased, scientifically validated, and integrative psychotherapy approach based on the theory that much of psychopathology is due to traumatic experience or disturbing life events. These result in the impairment of the client’s innate ability to process and to integrate the experience or experiences within the central nervous system. The core of EMDR treatment involves activating components of the traumatic memory or disturbing life event and pairing those components with alternating bilateral or dual attention stimulation. This process appears to facilitate the resumption of normal information processing and integration. This treatment approach can result in the alleviation of presenting symptoms, diminution of distress from the memory, improved view of the self, relief from bodily disturbance, and resolution of present and future anticipated triggers.”
Member Judy will now explain what this means in terms of her personal experience with EMDR therapy:
Tell us how you first learned about EMDR.
My therapist had heard about it and decided to take training in it in order to find out more. She was very impressed with it. She and some other therapists practiced it on each other. She wanted to know if I was interested and I thought, why not? She tries to check out new therapies if they make sense because she feels she wouldn't want to deprive a client of something that could help them. What is EMDR used to treat? It is mostly used to treat PTSD; there has been a lot of success using it with war vets. It can even be used in pre-verbal children to clear their memories of trauma.
I understand that EMDR is psychotherapy but also has this “eye movement” component in addition to what we consider traditional talk therapy. Can you tell us how adding eye movement exercises helps in this form of therapy?
The eye movement is about the brain reprocessing information. It doesn't have to even always be eye movement. Sometimes it's tapping on your knees or using a small "buzzer" device in your hands that buzzes alternately from left to right and can be done by itself or with the eye movement.
Where does one go to find a qualified EMDR therapist? Do they have special qualifications to conduct this type of therapy?
You can Google on "EMDR therapy" and find some resources and there are probably more out there besides what are listed on the sites you visit. You could probably call your state's psychologist referral service and ask. Word of mouth is often the best way to find good therapists. To conduct EMDR, they do have to have special training and be certified to practice. Your regular doctor or psychiatrist might know of resources, as well. I'm not sure if it's available in every state yet, but the training is being given in more and more areas now, even internationally.
What is a typical EMDR session like?
The session generally starts out with identifying a difficult emotion you might be dealing with at the moment and you rate the level of distress it causes you on a scale from 1 to 10, with 10 meaning the worst it could be. Then you identify how you would LIKE to feel, or what the opposite would be; if nothing seems to fit, you can always use something like "I can learn as much as I can about this and still feel safe." Next, the therapist has you focus on how you're feeling right now and where in your body you feel it, so then you focus on that while doing any or all of the following - following a traveling light on a bar from left to right, repetitively, sometimes with a "beeper" in each hand which corresponds to the lights, or the therapist might move two fingers in front of you from left to right.
If you notice a change in feeling, or some thought comes up, you can stop the process and talk about it, or the therapist may stop the light and ask you what is happening. The idea with this is that your brain is doing some kind of reprocessing of the things that come up by your left-to-right eye movements. Left brain, right brain.
You may end up recalling something from your childhood that was similar to whatever made you feel distressed now. Anyway, the goal by the end of the session is to have the distress level be lower or disappear and if it doesn't, you might just start there at the next session. You're also asked to picture a safe place or to put any leftover distressing feelings into a container until the next time, although you are free to open them up at any time on your own.
This therapy can take care of things quickly if the trauma is fairly recent, but it gets more involved if there are other layers of trauma to peel back; the idea is that trauma is cumulative when left unaddressed and one emotion might trigger another one just because of the patterns you learned in coping with it.
For instance, I've learned that if I feel shame, it can also trigger anger and grief.
What does this process feel like?
Sometimes when I've done EMDR it's almost felt like my whole life was rolled up into a big snowball that just kept getting bigger and bigger. Sometimes it's like a big ball of yarn that needs to be unraveled. The experience is sometimes very intense and I get surprised when I discover how much something that I thought was no big deal actually was very impactful on the assumptions I've made about myself and the world in general. Usually, when it gets very intense, once I've worked through it, there is a calm feeling, sometimes a huge feeling of relief, like 100 pounds got lifted from me.
Is EMDR covered by insurance? Is it expensive?
EMDR is covered by my insurance, just like any other therapy session.
How many sessions does it take before you notice any benefits?
Is there a limit to the number of sessions? You could possibly notice a difference in one session. How long it takes depends in great part on how many layers of trauma you've experienced. For example, you're dealing with not just what happened to you, but also how you were treated afterward and, if you were a child, if it was ever explained to you or if you were allowed to talk about it.
That's why they're now using it with preverbal children, so that they don't accumulate complex layers of trauma that need re-working.
Has this type of therapy been effective for you? What progress have you seen in yourself as a result of EMDR?
EMDR has been very effective for me, as it has let me process so many things that happened to me that I could never verbalize. Afterward, I can often start putting pieces together that can explain what's going on. For example, recently I just realized why I had so many nightmares for years about dead people coming back to life - it was related to not being allowed to grieve my grandfather's death when I was 8 years old. He was the one safe male in my life.
Any last thoughts?
I would recommend trying this if you have a history of abuse or trauma - and that can include life-threatening accidents or being threatened with death for any reason. It's a way to get to some very deep wounds that you may FEEL, but not realize are there. And it's not about re-living a trauma over and over, but getting to a place where the thought of it or memory of it does not cause you a huge amount of distress to the point of affecting your life and relationships with others. It's kind of like healing at the cellular level. Thanks for giving me the opportunity to talk about it here.
Thank you Judy!
If you would like to know more about EMDR or how to find an EMDR therapist here are some web sites to help: