Our brains can sometimes naturally recover from traumatic memories and events without therapeutic intervention. However, if the traumatic memories are not processed and stored properly, these experiences can continue to cause distress in the present moment and for a long time throughout someone’s life. Conclusions made from past around negative experiences can inform our present moment’s interpretations, therefore, our reaction at the moment may feel out of proportion to the current situation.
In those moments, a younger memory may be activated that is informing a strong reaction to the present moment. Someone might be unconsciously connecting to a younger age and their behavior may naturally regress to a less evolved coping strategy because in essence, they have traveled in time and the past has become the present. With the help of EMDR therapy, the previously disturbing memories can be neutralized and effectively integrated with other similar experiences.
What is EMDR Therapy?
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a therapy treatment that was originally designed by American psychologist and researcher, Francine Shapiro, Ph.D., in 1987 to alleviate the distress associated with traumatic memories. As an evidenced based model, EMDR has been growing in popularity and can help people recover from trauma, PTSD symptoms, and other mental health conditions.
Unlike some other therapeutic modalities, EMDR therapy does not require discussing the details of traumatic experiences in depth or completing homework in between sessions. EMDR allows the brain to process traumatic memories more sufficiently and adaptively to resume its natural healing process.
EMDR helps restart this the brain’s processing system, and the healing comes from the client, not the therapist. The EMDR therapist holds the space for the healing to happen and assists the client with removing any barriers that are blocking this natural healing process of the brain.
Are There Any Dangers of EMDR Therapy?
EMDR is considered a safe form of therapy that is recommended by many professionals as well as the American Psychiatric Association (APA). EMDR has proven to be a safe form of therapy for survivors of trauma or even those with dissociative disorders. There can be some side effects of EMDR therapy, risks, and challenges that an experienced EMDR therapist must keep in mind and deal with properly during sessions.
For example, some clients who tend to be well compartmentalized and disembodied may become more aware of the emotions, physical sensations, or disturbance of some memories. To counter these experieinces, EMDR therapy requires your therapist to first help provide enough of a stable foundation for you to manage possible triggers. An EMDR therapist will also likely have an extensive understanding of the client’s history before coming up with a formal treatment plan and will equip the client with coping and grounding skills that will assist them in managing any potential side effects of EMDR.
Because EMDR involves reprocessing distressing events and memories, it’s not uncommon for people to wonder about potential dangers of EMDR therapy. Potential dangers of EMDR therapy are something the EMDR therapist is always keeping in mind so they can help their patients contain triggers, emotions, and any intense emotional reactions that occur as a product of this therapeutic modality.
Who is the Right Candidate for EMDR Therapy?
Anyone who has experienced trauma or emotional distress at some point in their life can be a possible good candidate for EMDR therapy. EMDR has also been proven to be effective for individuals who suffer from the following conditions, though it’s not an extensive list:
- Panic attacks
- Complicated grief
- Dissociative disorders
- Eating disorders
- Traumatic events/PTSD
- Vivid dreams/nightmares
- Distressing memories
- Intrusive thoughts
- Performance anxiety
- Social anxiety
- Anxiety disorders
If you work with a therapist who is trained in EMDR therapy, they will be able to advise you if it’s an appropriate treatment modality for your exact symptoms and goals and will let you know if they have any concerns about your emotional safety. If EMDR therapy is not appropriate, other modalities will likely be suggested.
How Does EMDR Therapy Work?
Maladaptive conclusions from the past that are not processed correctly in the brain continue to inform the present moment. Reprocessing in EMDR allows new learning to happen and new connections to be made in the brain.
So, if “I’m unlovable or not good enough” became a core belief for someone due to traumatic childhood experiences, those core beliefs continue to inform the person’s life in the present moment, which can impact self-esteem and their relationships.
In the reprocessing part of EMDR, these components are replaced with more productive coping strategies as they get recoded into our nervous system and get stored in a a healthier, more adjusted way. Accessing and updating these memories with newly learned information allows the memory to be transformed and contained.
Holding a memory in mind while providing bilateral stimulation, for example, eye movement or tapping can tax the working memory. This results in the memory decreasing in intensity and a reduction of associated emotion.
So, let’s say you go to do EMDR because you’re experiencing a lot of anxiety at work and having a hard time presenting your projects to your employer and coworkers. Your EMDR therapist will help you identify earlier memories that are associated with the current symptoms and issues you are experiencing so they can all be reprocessed.
The EMDR therapist employs some strategies including asking questions or helping you connect with your body to pull up earlier memories that fit in the same category and line them up so they can all be reprocessed.
EMDR is a three-pronged protocol that starts by looking at where you are struggling in the present moment by addressing the presenting issue, connecting it with memories that may be negatively contributing to the presenting issues and setting you up with tools and skills to manage similar experiences better in the future.