Imagine finally putting the painful past behind you so you can heal from those wounds. One form of therapy that offers a possible way forward when it comes to traumatic memories is EMDR.
What is EMDR?
Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a form of therapy that was developed in the late 1980's by Dr Francine Shapiro. The treatment was originally designed for individuals who had experienced Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and the results of the scientific result has been promising.
It is recognised by the World Health Organisation, Department of Veteran Affairs, and Medicare EMDR as an acceptable psychological treatment alongside cognitive behavioural therapy and interpersonal therapy.
EMDR is based on a framework that all experiences go through what is called an Adaptive Information Processing system where our brain is able to make sense of our experiences in a way that helps us continue with our lives or improve it in some way.
Why do some distressing memories stay with us?
When we experience an incident that causes us high levels of distress, like a car accident or a bullying incident at work, our brain can do two things. Our brains have a natural way of processing the incident by reflecting on it, through memory consolidation phase of sleep or with the support of others as we talk through the event. In this way, adaptive information becomes associated with the memory and it eventually gets stored in long term memory without any impact on our current functioning.
Alternatively, the traumatic memory remains frozen in time in one part of our memory network where the original memory remains intact, vivid in detail and loaded with painful emotions causing us suffering each time it gets triggered. The intense emotions stop new information from adding a different perspective to the memory so the memory stays the same. Often tied to this traumatic memory are negative core beliefs about ourselves that start to interfere with the way we feel about ourselves, relate to other people and how we view the world. These then impact our perceptions, thoughts, feelings, behaviours and what we feel in our bodies as though we are trapped in time.
What are the 8 Phases of EMDR Treatment?
EMDR is a form of therapy that helps reduce the intensity of the traumatic memories by desensitising you to the memories in a safe and contained way. It is an eight phase treatment plan, as outlined below:
· Phase 1 - taking a comprehensive client history and only very briefly discussing adverse childhood experiences.
· Phase 2 - is building up resources and stability so the client can safely experience some emotional distress during session and be able to manage difficult emotions or memories between session.
· Phase 3 - identifying "target memories" to include either current triggers, linkages to the earliest or worst memories from childhood or future worries.
· Phase 4 to Phase 7 - processing the target by desensitising the distressing memory, integrating adaptive or more helpful beliefs about the client, processing residual bodily sensations and then finally closing the treatment.
· Phase 8 – re-evaluate the target memory processed in the previous session and to work through any residual emotional or physical disturbances but also to assess other memories or changes observed between sessions.
How long does it take to process one traumatic memory?
It often takes 1-2 sessions to do a thorough interview to understand your history, help you understand what trauma memories are, types of therapies available, determine suitability and readiness for treatment. Once you start the trauma processing of Phase 4 to 7, traumatic memories can resolve in as little as 1-2 sessions or may require more sessions depending on if there are associated memories linked to the original problem.
Is EMDR like any other talk therapies?
There are some elements that include talk therapy but most of the trauma processing through experiential techniques. We do this by stimulating both hemispheres of the brain by using eye movement, tapping or equipment that delivers sensory or auditory stimulation. Your EMDR trained therapist would ask you to hold in your mind an image of the memory, negative beliefs about yourself, the emotions associated with that particular memory and bodily sensations while using your eyes to track the movement of the therapist's fingers as they move it laterally from side to side.
In treatment, your role is to notice any spontaneous images or emotions that may come up without being influenced by the therapist or trying to analyse it. You are in complete control and can stop at any time.
Is EMDR only for individuals suffering from PTSD?
It is likely that individuals who seek therapy may have had some traumatic experience that causes increased distress and decrease in quality of life. Even though you may not meet the criteria for “big ‘T’ traumas” as outlined in the DSM-5 diagnosis for PTSD such as experiencing or witnessing a life-threatening event, unresolved distressing events may leave you experiencing many symptoms such as anxiety, depression, flashbacks, sleeplessness, hypervigilance, fatigue, poor appetite, emotional dysregulation, poor coping strategies such as addiction and low self-esteem.
Clients who have experienced what we call "little 't' traumas" such as interpersonal conflict, emotional abuse, infidelity, divorce, legal issues, feelings of shame, isolation, rejection, bullied and ridicule may benefit from EMDR.
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