EMDR is a therapy to treat traumatic memories. Traumatic memories are not like “normal” memories and do not behave the way other memories behave. Traumatic memories appear to be stored deep in the emotional parts of the brain and accessing them often causes strong emotional responses (or dissociation). Unlike other memories, you cannot get perspective on traumatic memories. They never play out in a way that is not horrible. Because they are the temperature of lava, they must be containered in order for the person to function. The lids on these containers often leak and nothing good comes from these leaks. Sometimes it takes little energy to keep the lid on. Other times, all the energy in the universe cannot prevent leaks. EMDR is a method that allows for traumatic memories to “move” safely from the seeping container into more normal memory. Once the memory has been reprocessed, the person can access the memory without a strong emotional reaction, can feel like the traumatic event occurred in the past, and can gain perspective from interacting with the memory.
Doing EMDR requires that clients hold traumatic memories, notice their responses to holding those memories, and receive one of several types of bilateral stimulation (I often use tappers that clients hold that shake left, then right, then left, etc). This combination allows traumatic memories to safely move and merge with more “normal” memories. The process sounds strange, especially the tapping part. I was initially skeptical.
These are some of the things I love about doing EMDR with clients:
- It is faster than other approaches I have tried with clients. I am frequently shocked at the speed that clients are able to process memories of unimaginable torture. Some clients have fully reprocessed difficult memories in half of a session that might have taken many months to partially cool using talk therapy. There are many exceptions, but what I find most shocking is the efficiency of this therapy.
- It is far gentler than other approaches I have tried with clients. With talk therapy, the process of talking about traumatic memories is likely to retraumatize clients. Talking about traumatic memories can cause these memories to seep into the body without any real confidence that the distress will result in any real relief. The journey might not be worth it. Yes, some parts of the memory might “cool” while talking about it. Or, it might get hotter as a result. EMDR involves very little talking. EMDR sessions can “feel” distressing, but the memories are often able to be fully reprocessed and the client ends in safety. Even when the memory is not able to be fully reprocessed in a single session, the protocol allows for the session to consistently end with safety and the journey often feels “worth it,” even though it is incomplete.
- Once I help the client set things up, I get out of the way of the processing. The protocol requires that I get out of the way. This type of therapy is pretty gentle to the therapist. Because we don’t have to talk about every detail of the trauma, I don’t have to hear everything that the client is seeing or feeling. Clients can have intense and occasionally scary reactions during processing, but I’m not wrapped up in stickiness of the trauma in the way that I might be with other methods. My job is to help the client with issues of safety, to help unclog problems with processing, and to provide support and encouragement.
- It’s a faster and better way of doing Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. As clients reprocess their traumatic memories, their maladaptive thoughts about themselves and the world change dramatically and seamlessly. When was the last time that you had a client go from believing he is completely unlovable to fully believing that he deserves to be loved in a single 53 minute session? That she is completely bad, to believing that she did the best she could… and that right here, right now, she is okay? This happens all the time in EMDR.
- It works on any channel. In EMDR, the channels are actual memory (and the available sub-channels are sensory memory: vision, sound, touch, taste, and smell related to the memory of the event); body memory (which can be different than explicit memory); emotions (all of them); thoughts about the traumatic memory; and body sensations in response to holding the memory/emotion. Clients can seamlessly switch between channels. If the client is processing on one channel and arrives at a dead-end, the client can easily switch to other channels.
- While one of the main goals of the therapist is to get out of the way, therapist intuition plays a very important role in EMDR. Good therapist intuition can often encourage a client to continue on a difficult path or to help a client get unstuck. I love this “flow” part of EMDR. Client and therapist intuition merge and communicate without a lot words.
- It works well for developmental trauma too. Having really bad things come to you is traumatic. It can also be traumatic when things that should have come to you did not come (attachment, nurturing/affection, validation, safety, etc). Helping clients develop their own gravity and positive view of themselves can be very challenging and long-term work. EMDR helps clients do this comparatively quickly, seamlessly, and elegantly.
- EMDR is a container that allows people who have a difficult time tolerating their emotions in their bodies to learn to tolerate emotions in their body. Because it allows people to safely transit some really horrible memory and somatic landscapes, clients often report that they are able to experience their own emotions in better ways. Emotions can become things that pass through them, instead of things that debilitate them.
- It’s always an unpredictable and interesting adventure. When a client first does EMDR, it feels like we walk together to the end of a diving board. Some clients do a beautiful, deep, and elegant dive. Others jump and fall straight to the bottom (and they look up at me, gasping for breath, before they push off the bottom and claw their way to an edge). Some jump straight up and dive straight down, but only slightly break the surface of the water the first few times. I never really know what will happen… until it does. Things generally end well with EMDR, but this lack of predictability/control is incredibly interesting/scary.
- My clients love it. There is nothing else in my toolkit that is anywhere near this powerful and transformative. I did not really–deep down–believe in the possibility of fundamental change for my severely traumatized clients until I saw my clients do it. Seeing this makes the idea of doing therapy for a long time exciting.