I have never felt the need to be secretive that I see a therapist. The ‘stigma’ with seeking therapy is not as prevalent as it used to be, but it’s not completely gone. But that discussion will have to wait for a future blog post.
What I want to talk about now is the particular type of therapy I’m currently undergoing. It’s called EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing).
What is EMDR?
EMDR was developed by Francine Shapiro, a psychologist, in 1989. Through the process of moving the eyes back and forth, it weakens the effect of negative emotions and physical responses in the body produced from recalling past traumatic events. Making these events less emotionally charged, less anxiety inducing, and less disabling. As to how it accomplishes that, there are many theories, but no universally recognized explanation.
Some believe the process diverts your attention away from physical distress in the body the trauma elicits. Others believe it works much like REM sleep in allowing the brain to produce lucid and unhindered images. Removing blocks coming either from your thinking patterns or tenseness in your body in order for you to actually process the event.
Due to the relative newness of this form of therapy, its effectiveness needs to be further examined. Most studies have been on relatively small groups. Those studies have success rates ranging from 84% to 100%. However, more studies need to be done to see if results can be sustained over time.
Even so, the APA (American Psychiatric Association) has declared EMDR as an effective way to treat symptoms of acute and chronic PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder). And the Department of Veteran affairs ‘strongly recommends’ it to treat PTSD in veterans.
Despite being particularly touted to treat PTSD, EMDR is also being used to treat depression, sexual dysfunction, panic attacks, eating disorders, addiction and anxiety.
It is particularly useful to anyone who has a hard time talking about traumatic events they have experienced. It’s more appealing to some clients because they have more control of their own healing and less is left to a therapist’s interpretation.
The goal of EMDR is to relieve distress, reformulate negative beliefs and reduce the physiological arousal the trauma causes in your body. Gains using this therapy are acquired fairly quickly. It is possible to work through a trauma in one to three sessions, instead of taking years of psychotherapy sessions. Multiple traumas can take up to a year.
What does an EMDR session look like?
To begin with, a client meets with the therapist and goes through a history overview. During this time you will be identifying traumatic events to work on.
Also, during this initial meeting the therapist will give you tools you can use for stress management and to alleviate anxiety, such as meditation and journaling to utilize between sessions.
Included in these tools is using imagery to calm yourself. Imagery can then be used to close an EMDR session or employed throughout the week if you find yourself feeling anxious.
To start an EMDR session, you pick one image that encapsulates the trauma you experienced. The therapist will then ask you to rate from 0 to 10 the amount of distress that image holds for you. They will also ask you where in your body you are feeling the distress. For instance, you may be clenching your jaw or tensing your shoulders.
You then put into words the negative belief you hold about yourself associated with this trauma. Do you feel ashamed, stupid, worthless, etc.? Then with your therapist’s help, come up with a positive belief about yourself you want to feel instead. Some examples could be: This isn’t my fault. I am resourceful. This has nothing to do with me.
Your positive statement is not set in stone. It may change depending on what the session brings up.
Concentrating on the trauma image and negative association in your mind, the therapist will then start moving her finger back and forth having you follow it with your eyes for a brief amount of time. (The finger motion can be substituted by following a light or musical tones or tapping hands or toes. All of these have the same effect.)
While concentrating just observe what comes up. You could feel a shift or sensation in your body, or your original image may lead your mind to different images. Because you are simultaneously still focusing on an external stimulus (watching the finger move back and forth), you aren’t able to manipulate your thinking on what is coming up.
When the therapist stops moving her finger you will discuss what emotions, body sensations and images came up for you. You start the next segment of watching the therapists finger holding whatever image you left off on from the last segment.
You’ll repeat this process about 5 or 6 times. After all segments have been completed, you’ll return to the original image the session began with and rate your distress on a scale from 0 to 10. Once your distress is 0, that trauma has been processed.
Side effects from undergoing this therapy are relatively minor. You may experience heightened awareness, light-headedness or begin having vivid, realistic dreams.
In an attempt to further educate, in next week’s post I will go step by step through a recent session where I processed a traumatic event. Hopefully by being vulnerable and opening up, it will show you exactly how this therapy can work.
Until then, please check out www.emdr.com for more information.
Why the hell do I keep seeing a snowman?