How to Know if Reprocessing is Happening

In the reprocessing phases of EMDR Therapy, it’s often easier to know that reprocessing is happening than is to know that it is not.  As a general rule, you can expect that reprocessing is occurring if the client reports any type of change or movement between sets.  Reprocessing is occurring if the client is active on the body channel and reports that sensations are moving, shifting, or changing.  Changes can occur even in sensations that happen at the same body location.  Several sets where the client reports, “I’m noticing it in my chest” is ambiguous information related to whether or not the client is “stuck.”  Sensations in the same bodily location can change in type, intensity, density, uniformity, or attributions attached.  Sensations can move smoothly, jump from one area to another, they can pulse, they can oscillate, they can have a temperature, they can connect with senses, and they can have a texture.  All of these things can change.  Noticing these changes is a good sign that reprocessing is happening.  Changes on the thought or emotion channels may not always form a linear line in an adaptive direction.  Clients may sometimes come up from some intensely distressing sets of noticing and then report a broad range of positive shifts for several sets, then dive back down as new material emerges.  Emotions may change from anger, to fear, to anger, to “nothing,” to fear, and then to “nothing.”  EMDR is a journey. If the landscape is changing, movement is happening.  All of this is good–very good.

Be skeptical when a client starts to reprocess a target and has a flurry of adaptive information that rushes in on the thought channel in the first few sets.  This is likely a bypass to avoid the target or to avoid the distress of noticing.  If the client purposefully enlists adaptive information very early in reprocessing, encourage the client to simply go back to the target and notice what comes up.  It is very rare for a client to fully reprocess a target in several minutes.  Even my clients who reprocess quickly, none of them have fully reprocessed an intense target in less than 15 minutes from the start of a reprocessing session.

Sometimes it is difficult to tell if the client is stuck or has simply reached the end of the information that is coming on whatever channel the client was last noticing (thought, memory, emotion, or body sensation).  Channels will sometimes end.  This is expected and normal.  Clients may report “nothing” across several sets.  This is often a good time to check the SUDS.  Checking the SUDS redirects the client back to the target to assess distress.  If the SUDS is not a zero or one, then there will more to notice on one channel or another.  You can always ask, “where is that [five] sitting?” or “where are you noticing that [five] distress?”

If the client reports the same thing across several sets and reports no change, it is often a good idea to check the thought channel for issues related to guilt, blame, or shame (while these are emotions, the client is often more likely to identify them on thought channel than the emotion channel).  If the client did something “wrong,” then asking the client to notice guilt, blame, or shame can be productive to reprocessing.  If the client is blaming herself for trauma that another person inflicted on her (particularly when she was a child and the abuser was an adult), then this is very likely to bring reprocessing to an immediate halt if the client can’t find her own way around the block.  EMDR will not allow faulty information to be metabolized, the same way that a single bad line of computer code can prevent any of it from working correctly.  In instances where the client cannot find her way around faulty information, you have to work with the client to correct the glitch in information so that reprocessing can resume (see A Simple Overview of Where Blocks Might Happen in EMDR Reprocessing).

Of course, you can assume that reprocessing is occurring if the client’s distress is declining about the same rate as adaptive information is increasing.  You don’t know for sure that reprocessing has occurred until you check in with the memory in a subsequent session. After several successful reprocessing sessions, clients are normally very aware of which memories have been reprocessed and which have not.  Most will be able to tell you in very concrete terms what this healing is bringing to them.  For others, the journey is longer.  The more knotted the client’s traumatic memory networks, the longer the unknotting.

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