EMDR: Healing the past and living a better future
My clients usually ask me questions such as: What is EMDR helpful for? What does EMDR therapy involve? How many sessions* might I need? And what changes can I expect as a result of undergoing EMDR therapy, and would it work for me? I shall try and answer these questions in this short article.
What is EMDR helpful for?
EMDR is a therapy for big and/or small traumas of life that overwhelmed you at a particular time in your life. These can range from being bullied at school; not being listened to by your parents at home; your mother’s depression leading to you being neglected; molestation by a family member or an outsider and not being able to defend yourself; being humiliated in front of the class; hearing your loved one die whilst you are alone; being assaulted in the street to witnessing or being a part of a road traffic accident.
The overwhelming of your system prevents processing of your trauma-related memories, e.g. the images, sounds, faces, smells, feelings and bodily reactions. For example, in the case of road traffic accident you either witnessed or were part of, which is a type of big trauma, due to your unprocessed memories you may get flashbacks of shattered windscreen, smell of petrol, screeching of brakes and any of these in isolation can make you relive the accident, and you may be left with a belief about yourself that you are in danger.
Unprocessed trauma-related memories may lead to patterns of over-reaction and poor psychological health that can be observed at home, work and personal lives; for example:
I am not good enough
At work you feel angry when a colleague is not performing to his/her best; fail to get your words out in a meetings and feel stupid; feel devastated by your boss’s slightest criticism and/or just have a prevailing feeling of not being good enough and so on.
I am ugly
You feel anxious just by hearing the word 'fat'; feel bad when a pair of jeans don’t fit or when you look in the mirror and so on leading to beliefs like 'I am ugly'.
I am powerless
In relationships where a comment from a friend leads you back to the pain of being bullied at school, work or by a sibling and feeling powerless or being in danger.
And, the recurrent nightmares of being chased by an assailant or a monster that just won't stop making you feel exhausted.
The above are just a few examples but all of these psychologically damaging behaviours, negative self-beliefs, and nightmares are the result of unprocessed memories of negative experiences in life-related trauma, either in childhood or at any stage in life.
Many of these can lead to recognised mental health conditions like anxiety, panic attacks, depression, phobias, obsessive compulsive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to complex PTSD, and they respond well to EMDR therapy. Apart from these mental health conditions, physical issues like chronic pain may respond well to EMDR therapy and newer areas are being explored.
What does EMDR therapy involve and how many sessions may be needed?
EMDR involves the processing of the above big and/or small trauma-related unprocessed memories with the help of an EMDR therapist. Your EMDR therapist would prepare you for the sessions, teach you techniques to help you ensure your psychological stability when you are alone, and be supportive throughout the therapeutic process.
The processing of your unprocessed memories is enabled by bilateral stimulation, e.g. eye movements and tapping on your knees, under the guidance of your therapist. These are known as the desensitisation and reprocessing sessions. This combined with cognitive and body-based techniques that your therapist might use lead to only adaptive processed memories, e.g. insights and new beliefs, being retained by your brain.
The whole therapeutic process, including assessing your difficulties; preparation; stabilisation; desensitisation and reprocessing; and review, generally takes 6-8 one-hour sessions. Obviously, more sessions would be needed if a client has a long-term history of trauma of various kinds.
What improvements can you expect in your life as a result of undergoing EMDR therapy, and would it work for you?
As a result of the adaptive processing of your trauma-related memories, considering you have completed a set of EMDR sessions that you had agreed with your therapist, you are likely to notice the following transformational effects:
- Frightening and/or sad images you had associated with the event fade, losing their negative emotional effects on you.
- Noise/s that jump-started a horrible event/s from your past (before therapy) no longer bother you.
- General reactivity to the memories of the event/s, e.g. sweaty palms and heart racing no longer occur.
- Your negative beliefs about yourself become either positive or neutral.
The success rate of EMDR therapy for clients with PTSD is around 80%, and it is also highly successful for other conditions like CPTSD, anxiety, panic disorder and phobias (please see www.emdr.com for research studies).
Overall, the transformational effects discussed above are not only most likely to heal your past but also make your life more positive and enjoyable. These types of positive psychological and life outcomes are supported by many research studies and worldwide organisations (please go to www.emdr.com for further information).
- Cunliffe, H. ‘If trauma is impacting your life how EMDR can help’
- EMDR process explained through 8 videos see here www.irisiris.org
- Haven, Justin on Talk Radio: How EMDR can help with PTSD (July 2020)
- Shapiro, F (2012) Getting past your past. New York: Rodale.
*Most psychotherapists and counsellors provide one-hour sessions.