March 21, 2024

EMDR Therapy: What Is It

Let’s say you’ve had a terrifying or devastating experience - maybe you lived through an accident or an assault. 

At the time, your body instinctively went into a fight-or-flight-or-freeze state. But even though the event is now over and you logically know that you’re safe, you nevertheless feel on edge. You’re jumpy and irritable. You’re having trouble sleeping. Everything reminds you of what happened and you can’t help but believe that the world is a more dangerous place. 

Furthermore, all this stress has left you feeling exhausted, struggling to focus, and enduring frequent waves of sadness, panic, or anger. You’re frustrated with yourself and wish you could “let it go” but… you just can’t.

Under normal circumstances, our brain takes in what’s going on in the world around us, processes the information, and stores it in a manner that will be useful to us when we face similar situations in the future. 

However, sometimes we encounter extreme experiences that overwhelm our nervous system. In these situations, our brain is unable to properly process what’s happening and so instead stores the information in a “raw” form. This means that, even once the event has ended, our nervous system still believes that we are in danger and therefore attempts to protect us by keeping us in that hypervigilant fight-or-flight-or-freeze state. 

And that’s where eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) can help.

What Is Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing?

EMDR uses bilateral stimulation to help your brain reprocess extreme experiences and store them in an adaptive form, thus encouraging your nervous system to return to normal functioning. 

What’s bilateral stimulation? Typically, it’s as easy as moving your eyes side-to-side by following your therapist’s finger - although tapping on alternate sides of your body is also effective if eye movements are challenging for you. 

EMDR is a researched-backed therapeutic technique endorsed by the American Psychological Association as well as the World Health Organization. And while it was originally designed to treat the impact of extreme experiences - the first EMDR clients were Vietnam war veterans - it is demonstrably effective with more common yet nevertheless difficult experiences like painful break-ups, personal losses, public humiliations, and childhood rejections.

Benefits of EMDR

Plus, EMDR also works on anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues

Why? Anxiety, depression, and other disorders often stem in part from a combination of a hyper- or hypo-aroused nervous system (think about the panic and jitteriness associated with anxiety or the numbness and lethargy characteristic of depression) with negative ideas about yourself, others, and the world. 

And even if you understand on a logical level that these ideas - like “everybody hates me” or “I’m not worthy of love” - aren’t reflective of reality, on some level they just feel true. In addition to stabilizing your nervous system, EMDR can help you to authentically embody the ideas that you decide would better serve you in daily life. 

To be clear: EMDR can’t erase your memories or “brainwash” you. But it can help you adopt what you determine is a healthier perspective on life as well as move beyond your past so that you can better enjoy your present.