by Veronica J. Brodsky, Psy.D.
“Wow, I have just processed in this two-hour session what I have tried to process in therapy for years.” This was a statement made by a client after I have incorporated EMDR into his session. While not everyone has this experience, many patients do report that past traumatic or highly disturbing experiences have been processed, through bilateral stimulation, in an accelerated manner. Many studies indicate that by using EMDR therapy, people can experience the benefits of psychotherapy that once took years to make a difference. In addition, what is remarkable is that EMDR therapy shows that the mind can heal from psychological trauma much as the body can recover from physical trauma.
I became particularly interested in EMDR after recognizing that many of my own patients felt “stuck.” Although we made many connections to their past and its impact on their current functioning, simply recognizing this connection was just not enough to help patients move forward in a way that freed them from their past. As a result, “talk therapy” alone became less productive, so I was in search of other modalities that could be of help.
What attracted me to EMDR was its fundamental link to our physiology and “mind-body” connection. I observed that many people with a history of trauma, especially complex trauma, held on to these experiences in their bodies. Somehow I wanted to aide in helping them to release these experiences from their body, similarly as we want a message therapist to help us to release a tense knot in our body.
EMDR Institute describes Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) as a “Psychotherapy treatment that was originally designed to alleviate the distress associated with traumatic memories (Shapiro, 1989a, 1989b). Francine Shapiro developed this modality about 20 years ago. Shapiro’s (2001) Adaptive Information Processing model posits that EMDR therapy facilitates the accessing and processing of traumatic memories and other adverse life experience to bring these to an adaptive resolution. After successful treatment with EMDR therapy, affective distress is relieved, negative beliefs are reformulated, and physiological arousal is reduced.”
EMDR is used for a huge range of clinical application. The premise is that 1) we move towards health and wholeness; 2) we have a natural impulse to heal; 3) we have wisdom within us. EMDR incorporates the Adaptive Information Processing model and its main premise is that we move from a dysfunctional state to a functional one. Trauma impacts the integration of the information and stores traumatic experience in a fragmented way on the right side of the brain. By incorporating bilateral stimulation, we are reprocessing this experience and moving it in more organized way to the left side of the brain. The other important premise of EMDR is that you don’t lose anything you need.
Often in this work we refer to various traumatic events as “Large T” or “Small t.” Large T traumas are referred to the events that were life threatening (e.g. war, accident, rape, etc.). Small t – traumas are referred to the events that were experienced by individuals as traumatic, but were not life threatening (e.g. humiliations, sense of inadequacy, shame, difficult interpersonal relationships). Thus, these experiences limit how we view ourselves in the world. The impact of many “small t (s)” on one’s psyche can be just as devastating as experiencing one “large T” trauma.
In my training with Dr. Laurel Parnell, who had modified the original protocol and incorporated “Attachment Focused EMDR” I have learned that a lot of the techniques and the use of bilateral stimulation can also reduce anxiety, improve sleep, and overcome trauma. With successful EMDR process often “anger turns into power and fear turns into love.” While the techniques used in EMDR can be helpful to many, they are not for everyone and the success rate can vary depending on the individual and other factors. However, I feel fortunate in having this technique in my “tool-box” and have seen impressive results when they are incorporated into “talk therapy.”
Parnell, L. (2007). A therapist’s guide to EMDR; Tools and techniques for successful treatment. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
Parnell, L. (2013). Attachment focused EMDR; Healing relational trauma. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
Shapiro, F. (1995). Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing; Basic principles, protocols, and procedures. New York: The Guilford Press.