Many people have heard about EMDR. You may be wondering how does it work? Could it help you?
EMDR is a means to assist in recognizing and changing the negative responses that weigh us down and inhibit us from living our most fulfilling lives. EMDR helps to fully process and integrate difficult events in our lives, so that we don’t remain stuck.
If you find yourself asking “why does that still bother me?” or find yourself repeating patterns or making choices that no longer serve you—despite your best efforts to change them—it may benefit you to talk to an EMDR trained mental health professional.
The role of memory networks
Our brain has a natural ability to process and integrate information. However, our ability to process information becomes compromised when under stress. When we are unable to process distressing events, the information becomes isolated and unable to update the whole memory network.
Instead, a new memory network is created that embodies the images, beliefs, emotions, and physical sensations associated with the specific, distressing event. Visualize this separation like the way water and oil are unable to mix together.
We then have a tendency to continue to experience the distressing event as if it’s happening presently: we find ourselves in the there and then, rather than the here and now. We feel stuck.
Because we are unable to update the memory network, we develop negative responses to normative events. More specifically, the way in which we perceive our world and ourselves—as well as how we interact with and behave in our world—is negatively altered.
- have difficulty falling asleep
- feel anxious and on edge in specific settings or around certain people, yet struggle to understand why that is
- react poorly to educational, occupational or relational stress
- experience physical symptoms such as chronic headaches, gastrointestinal issues, impaired immune system, or anxiety and panic
EMDR helps to integrate the isolated memory network into the larger network.
How EMDR helps
Some individuals may be able to identify the correlation between the distressing event and the negative responses, while others are not able to do so. Humans have extraordinary defense mechanisms to shield us from our emotional pain. Unfortunately, these defense mechanisms can greatly inhibit our ability to understand how our experiences impact us.
For example, let’s say an individual was exposed to violence at a young age. Throughout their life, this individual may struggle to be assertive because they equate assertiveness to confrontation and confrontation to violence. In turn, their lack of assertiveness leads to missed opportunities for promotions at work as they are avoidant of expressing their needs and expectations to their colleagues or employer. The individual may never realize these underlying connections. This is the type of person who could benefit from EMDR.
EMDR is well-known to be effective with PTSD and trauma, but it can help with any distressing life events. Many clients find that they have experienced negative but common experiences like being bullied or picked on. These experiences can leave us questioning our worth or a chronic need to “prove ourselves.” They can make us feel more anxious meeting new people. EMDR can help us unlearn these beliefs and feelings.
Some clients have not experienced violence, but have known the distress of growing up in a chaotic home or having a parent with alcoholism. This might manifest in being on guard and not trusting others, being “perfect” to prevent being criticized, or appeasing and anticipating others’ needs to avoid conflict. EMDR can often help with these patterns as well.
What exactly is EMDR?
OK, so EMDR helps people heal and sustain positive change. But what exactly is it?
EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. It’s a cumbersome term, right? Let’s break it down.
The “Eye Movement” in EMDR refers to how the brain is activated through bilateral stimulation to facilitate the natural processing of information. A hefty term itself, bilateral stimulation is simply a left-right (side-to-side) rhythmic pattern. We may use eye movement, tapping, or hearing a tone in one ear and then the other.
EMDR allows individuals to update the information through the coupling of bilateral stimulation and the recalling of images, beliefs, emotions, and physical sensations associated with the distressing event that have found itself isolated in its own memory network (this is the “Desensitization and Reprocessing” part).
As all the components of the memory are updated in the comprehensive memory network, the individual no longer experiences life in the there and then, but rather the here and now. We become unstuck.
When we become unstuck, we find that we are able to tolerate the original distressing event because we are no longer experiencing it as if it is happening now. We will also notice that our responses to normative situations are more appropriate.
After engaging in EMDR, the individual who was witness to violence in childhood, may find themselves able to express their needs and expectations to their employer as they no longer equate assertiveness to confrontation.
EMDR is most commonly associated with traumatic events and post-traumatic stress disorder but EMDR is an effective treatment for a variety of mental health disorders. According to the EMDR International Association, EMDR can be used for the following:
- anxiety, panic attacks, and phobias
- chronic illness and medical issues
- depression and bipolar disorders
- dissociative disorders
- eating disorders
- grief and loss
- performance anxiety
- personality disorders
- sleep disturbance
- substance abuse and addiction
EMDR is an effective treatment method to heal from emotional pain, however that pain initially manifested. I am a huge advocate for EMDR due to its ability to manifest the here and now and support individuals in embodying their most authentic self and living life fully.
She specializes in treating trauma and PTSD, and difficult past experiences. Molly also has extensive experience working with issues related to depression, anxiety, life transitions, stress management, family systems and grief.
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