EMDR: When It Works Well and What It's Like

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By Mirela Bitkowski, MA

More than three decades ago, therapist and researcher Dr. Francine Shapiro, developed a type of trauma therapy called Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, or EMDR.  The therapy was born from an observation she made walking in a park one day. Shapiro noticed that moving her eyes appeared to decrease negative emotions associated with certain bad memories.

She combined other therapeutic components with eye movement and developed the researched and validated therapeutic protocol that is used today. EMDR therapy is a useful treatment for the after-effects of trauma and other negative life experiences.

 When EMDR Works Well

EMDR works well when your brain finds an experience (or set of experiences) too overwhelming and interferes with or limits your ability to function in, and enjoy, your daily life.

Do you avoid, ignore, or harmfully cope with a past event or interaction? EMDR can help you reset how you accept and deal with the associated recollections and feelings.

The key idea behind this type of therapy is that our brains work optimally via an “adaptive information processing system,” much like that of computer mainframe or network. In this way, our memories, visual perceptions, emotions, and sensations are linked together.

In essence, our mental “computers” help us adapt during trying circumstances. It gets us through bad experiences by making a connection to our stored information that explains the situation and soothes our upset. Unfortunately, a traumatic occurrence can short-circuit that mental ability. Trauma is often a “processor virus” that crashes our brain’s adaptive operations.

EMDR essentially debugs that internal processing system.

What EMDR is Like

The key to EMDR treatment working well is rooted in a procedure called “bi-lateral stimulation.”

For instance, a therapist might move their hand or an object from side-to-side in front of you, instructing you to follow it with your eyes. At the same time, targeting a disturbing memory or trigger. Bilateral eye movements (or other external stimuli like taps or tones) help integrate, reprocess the way your brain has processed the experience.

EMDR has been proven to create new associations, allowing you to access the memories in a more adaptive way. You can remember, learn, and grow from the experiences without feeling emotionally wounded or held back by them.

In addition, EMDR has proven itself to be a more desirable and effective mode of therapy for the following reasons too:

  • EMDR treatment approaches anxiety differently. Rather than trying to overcome trauma exposure or trigger desensitization, EMDR ‘re-wires’ how your brain perceives the past as opposed to numbing you to triggers.

  • EMDR is a “less talk, more action” approach. Sometimes continually talking about a negative experience is problematic. Other therapy methods may feel overwhelming or hinder the pace of treatment. EMDR addresses memories in a more specific manner.

  • EMDR generally consumes less time. Some therapies which require group work or homework. EMDR is an in-session approach. Aside from a possible journal (to personally record progress), very little is required on your own.

Who to Seek for EMDR Treatment?

Only trained mental health professionals provide EMDR therapy. A trained EMDR therapist has undertaken at a minimum, basic EMDR training and consultation. Many EMDR trained therapists continue their training by attending advanced classes addressing the use of EMDR in specific cases, such as anxiety, substance abuse, migraine headaches, PTSD, complex trauma, and dissociative disorders, to name only a few. Therapists can also become certified EMDR providers by meeting required benchmarks of case consultations and supervision.

Are you are suffering from persistent negative emotions? Does discomfort related to a difficult past event, relationship, or trauma in your past get in your way often?

EMDR may be worth investigating.

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Mirela Bitkowski, MA, LPC Intern, sees clients at the Relationship Counseling Center of Austin. Mirela is trained in EMDR therapy and can use it to help you work through complex trauma, PTSD, anxiety, and beyond. If you are curious if EMDR therapy is right for you, contact Mirela at (512) 270-4883, ext. 115, or request an appointment with her on the RCC Austin Scheduling page.