As a therapist who provides EMDR to clients in the Washington, DC area, I often get questions about this form of treatment, how it works, and who it can help. While EMDR is widely known in the therapy community, I’d like to help empower clients to know how they can benefit from EMDR. Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) is a form of psychotherapy developed over 30 years ago, which can help people process distressing memories and beliefs. Here is how the Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing International Association describes this type of therapy (from https://emdria.site-ym.com/?119):
“…When a person is very upset, their brain cannot process information as it does ordinarily. One moment becomes “frozen in time,” and remembering a trauma may feel as bad as going through it the first time because the images, sounds, smells, and feelings haven’t changed. Such memories have a lasting negative effect that interferes with the way a person sees the world and the way they relate to other people.”
Think of your brain working like the desktop of your computer that has folders for different things. We have all kinds of folders, and when “normal” events occur, our brain sorts through that information and stores it effectively. When we go through challenges, tragedies, or rough patches (which can range anywhere from being bullied to sexual assault, to divorce, to a car accident), sometimes the “folders” in our brains get overwhelmed with data and the brain can’t do its normal job of sorting through the information to process what happened, so the event and everything associated with it cannot get stored the right way in a memory folder. Instead of getting stored away as “something bad happened but I’m okay/going to be okay,” it gets stored away in a folder that is about fear, shame, mistrust, or self-loathing.
The part of our brain that controls memories and the part of our brain that controls emotions work really closely together, so when something happens in our lives that makes us think about The Bad Thing, our emotions get triggered too. This leaves us feeling overwhelmed and “stuck” on what happened, because we keep “re-experiencing” it until it gets resolved. That’s where EMDR comes in.
EMDR helps our confused brains organize these memories and store the information in a way that is adaptive and healthy. You will still recall The Bad Thing that happened, but it sort of becomes a memory like any other – one that doesn’t get your emotions involved in such an intense way anymore. EMDR is not a magic cure, and it is hard work to do in therapy, but there is comfort in knowing that your brain is already wired to do this type of work – it does it every single day on every single event you experience. And if you’re feeling stuck on something, that is your brain’s way of knowing it might need this extra help to finish processing it.
EMDR can be a helpful therapy to get when we feel “stuck” with something. So if you find yourself thinking “Ugh, I still get really upset when I think about X” or “I try to avoid doing things that might make me feel Y,” that might mean you are a good candidate to benefit from EMDR.