What is EMDR?
EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing. Eye movement or other forms of bilateral stimulation seem to activate problem-solving processes, something that happens during REM sleep when the eyes are darting back and forth. EMDR clinicians focus on a key specific problem and identify negative and positive emotions, sensations, and beliefs. Then the clinicians add bilateral stimulation which actually changes the way neurons fire in the brain. This allows the brain to begin adaptive problem solving. EMDR targets specific key problems and allows the brain to process the memories, thoughts, and emotions more adaptively. EMDR seems to work similarly to Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep where the brain can move data around and even purge data. EMDR was initially developed as a treatment for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and can result in up to 92% remission rate for simple (one event) PTSD. However, EMDR has been utilized effectively with other issues including anxiety, addiction, and phobias and the research base supporting the use of EMDR continues to grow rapidly.
Benefits of EMDR
Traumatic or anxiety producing memories are stored in our brain and re-activated by amygdala based fear responses. Think of the amygdala as our brain’s version of a “protector.” Once we experience a traumatic event, this info is stored by the amygdala, which then constantly scans for threats. Anything that the amygdala associates with the original trauma can then cause the amygdala to trigger a fight, flight, freeze, or faint response. These survival responses are involuntary and can be very unpleasant. One of the more common expressions of the Amygdala based fear response is Panic Disorder (Panic attacks).
When trauma memories are triggered, the amygdala pulls memory feelings, sensations, and experiences into the present without our conscious awareness that they are memories. In other words, we experience the memories as if they were happening right now. Unlike other treatments, EMDR focuses on the memory and changes the way memory is stored in the brain. This usually eliminates the symptoms of PTSD. Successful EMDR treatment leads to memories no longer producing high levels of distress but becoming just memories instead of recurring experiences.
EMDR typically produces rapid relief of symptoms using bilateral alternate stimulation. During EMDR, there is an increase activity of the brain’s prefrontal, ventromedial, amygdala and thalamic regions. Research indicates that individuals who participate in EMDR treatment, experience significant reduction of stress responses associated with their PTSD.
EMDR is also less distressing or invasive than other forms of trauma treatment like Trauma Focused Cognitive Behavioral or Exposure therapies. Some other differences with EMDR from other PTSD treatment are that EMDR doesn’t require homework, challenging distorted cognitions, detailed discussion of the trauma(s), or extensive exposure to the memories. This makes EMDR more palatable than some other forms of treatment and increases treatment compliance often resulting in better treatment outcomes.
EMDR consists of eight phases or treatment and gives many clients with trauma histories or PTSD a chance to turn traumatic experiences into mere memories by reprogramming the amygdala based fear responses.
Research suggests that 90 minutes of EMDR treatment results in PTSD symptom remission in 92% of clients [with simple PTSD]. EMDR appears effective with complex trauma and other trauma and anxiety related issues as well. However, the results may not be quite as dramatic or fast because symptoms associated with complex trauma [trauma upon trauma rather than one trauma] are less direct and more intertwined.
Some researchers assert that 20 minutes of EMDR is roughly the equivalent of five hours of talk therapy. Hence, EMDR might be a quick and effective treatment for a variety of mental and emotional health concerns but is especially recommended for trauma, anxiety, and PTSD symptoms.