What is EMDR? 

EMDR is a psychotherapy that helps people get over depression, anxiety, and emotional trauma, just to name a few.

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EMDR – the first in a series.
Bill Jacobs here for LifeResource Ministries.

Life can be difficult. Sometimes there are illnesses, accidents, violence, relational issues, emotional trauma – all of that. What if there is, in everybody’s brain – the capacity to heal itself from life’s difficulties? Well, actually, there is. We can get over the bad things that happen to us, but how? Sometimes that seems very illusive.

There are many ways to heal from our past. Today we’re going to talk about one of them – the one I use in my counseling practice and recommend most often to people who contact me for referral sources. It’s called EMDR. That stands for eye movement desensitization and reprocessing.

EMDR is a psychotherapy that helps people get over depression, anxiety and emotional trauma, just to name a few. I’ve referenced this form of therapy in many of our LifeResource presentations, but I’ve never explained how the therapy works until today.

EMDR is not hypnosis. There are no jolts of electricity going through your brain. There are no drugs. And it’s not traditional talk therapy. It’s the activation of a natural healing process already present in your brain.

Think about the implications here for Christians. We know that God created us for struggle and also for healing. Just like He’s made our bodies to heal of injuries, so also He’s made our minds with a self-healing capability. From my perspective, EMDR is one effective way to access that healing capacity that God has given to all of us.

Now EMDR is not traditional talk therapy, like I said. How does it differ? In talk therapy – at least the kind of talk therapy I do – the healing occurs between the person and the therapist. It’s inter-psychic. With EMDR, it’s intra-psychic. It’s all going on in the person’s head.

What’s the advantage to that? Well, for example, a woman came to my office one day. She had been raped. She had PTSD with all the symptoms – flashbacks, nightmares, panic attacks, rage, inability to focus. She felt cut off from others. She got over all those symptoms in eight sessions and she never had to divulge a single detail of what happened to her – no humiliation, no degradation, no vulnerability, no re-traumatization through telling. She was protected from all that. And it made it a lot easier on me, too, because I didn’t have to hear all the gory details. So I think that’s pretty great, don’t you?

We can learn a lot of really important things about EMDR from its origins. Sometime in the mid-80s, a woman had just been informed that she was seriously ill. She went for a walk to sort it all out. While she was walking, her eyes began to dart back and forth involuntarily. And she noticed that she seemed to feel better as a result. She was so intrigued, she tried it on friends and family, who reported positive results as well. Then three things happened. She had her disease treated. She got a doctorate in psychology. And she founded the EMDR Institute in 1987, if memory serves. Her name is Francine Shapiro.

Dr. Shapiro realized that this discovery was so different from other therapies that she would have to prove that it worked if she wanted to be taken seriously. So she, with help from others, developed an eight-phase protocol that helps clinicians do the therapy in a standardized way with every client. This standardized method made it much easier to document the results. So, with this tool, the EMDR Institute began accumulating data to support the efficacy of the therapy.

They must have done a pretty good job of it, because in 2006, out of the blue, I received an email from the Veteran’s Administration. The email said that lots of soldiers were expected back from overseas with post-traumatic stress disorder and that EMDR was the only therapy proven to work on PTSD. Well, I’d heard a lot of good things about EMDR, but that kind of cinched it. So I did want to be trained for free. Who wouldn’t in my business? So I wrote them back and said, “Yes, thank you very much. Sign me up.” The VA responded to my request with another email in which they told me they weren’t going to train me, because I wasn’t a veteran. So I sent another email, asking me why they sent me the first email to begin with. And to that email, I received no response. Our government! Bless their hearts.

I took the training a year or so later on my own. Looking back, I had no idea how much that training would improve my therapy skills.

Let’s think about how EMDR works. Let’s take a look at a real live situation and track it – the details changed, of course, for confidentiality sake, but the results are as reported. A teenage girl came to my office some time back. She seemed happy and social, but she was refusing to go school. In the past, she loved school. She had always had excellent grades and now her mother couldn’t get her to go. It was mysterious to her. The girl said that she freaked out at school. In talking to her, I learned that when she was in elementary school, a loved one had been murdered in a convenience store robbery. She explained her story in vague terms and expressed sadness over her loss, but she evidenced no sadness on her face or in her voice. I asked her to think of a place where she felt safe somewhere in her past. But try as she might, she could not find any place where she felt safe in the past or even in the present. Think what that would be like for a teenager. So we can start to understand the school refusal now. She’s afraid to be at school. And we see violent, sudden and unexpected, traumatic loss of a loved one having a deep-seated effect on her – her outlook, her sense of self, and even her view of the world as an unsafe place. What would you do to help her?

We need a way to think about what’s happening inside her head. Daniel Siegel, a noted brain researcher, in his book, The Developing Mind, explains that mental health includes a fully integrated brain – the left, the right, the front, the back, the top and the bottom. For example, the left side of the brain is thought to deal generally with thinking, logic, numbers, etcetera, while the right side deals with emotions, art and so forth.

Let’s apply this principle to this girl. She has a fear. That’s an emotion. That would be on the right side of her brain. Correct? When we engage her in a logical discussion – that’s in the left side – about safety at home, she says, “I know I’m safe, but I still feel unsafe.” So there’s a disconnect between left side of her brain, where she thinks, and the right side, where she feels. The two sides aren’t communicating. The trick, then, is to get them integrated – connected again. So how would we do that? Would you tell her “to get over it?” Well, she’s already tried that. She got told that a lot by a lot of folks and it didn’t work. How about, “Suck it up and live with it.” She heard that a lot, too. But that doesn’t work either. She needs to feel calm at school so she can concentrate on learning. So what can we do?

Well, Daniel Siegel gives us another clue. At the EMDREA National Conference in 2011, in his plenary presentation, he said, “Trauma inhibits brain integration.” One way to understand that statement is this way. When information that implies danger or severe loss comes in from the senses, the part of the brain that stores memory can malfunction. Normally it stores emotional data in the right cortex and cognitive data in the left, but, when under severe stress, the information can be encoded differently. Some of it can be randomly sent all over the brain in bits and pieces, instead of a complete story with a beginning, middle and end. It’s almost like the part that stores memory freaks out from the stress.

I met a man once who was plagued with terrible images of an auto accident – flashes of seeing another car barreling into the side of his. In this memory, the car would never hit him. It always stopped just before impact. It was just a piece of the event – a flashback. The memory itself was not integrated. It would come to him suddenly, when he was driving or just as he was drifting off to sleep, making driving and sleeping difficult or impossible. By the way, he got over that in four sessions with EMDR.

Now, here’s another way memory can be maladaptively encoded during stress. It may stay in the limbic system – down in the center of the brain – where it never should have been stored. How do we know this? Well, brain scans. We can actually see it. When this happens, it stays there unchanged, like a little burning hot coal.

I talked to a man of thirty or so, who would have panic attacks when people argued. When he was four, he witnessed a fist fight between two adult men. When he told me about it, he was able to tell a story. So what was encoded was a full event. But when I asked him how upsetting it was on a scale from zero to ten, he said it was a ten. It had never faded. The memory of it sat there with its painful emotion all those years without change – no re- encoding, no adaptive change. This fearsome image was triggered when people got angry. When he talked about it, he said things like, “I was scared. I didn’t want them to fight. I wondered if I did something to make them mad. I wondered if somebody was going to hit me.” We desensitized that memory and reprocessed it. His thoughts sounded more like an adult as he talked about it. He said things like, “Now that I think about it, they were friends later,” and, “Maybe they were drunk,” and, “My mom got me out of there so I was okay.” This is what I believe happened to the fearful girl, as well. The right-side traumatic memory has never integrated with her logical left-side brain.

Now, if you read the book, The Master and His Emissary, by E. M. McGilchrist, you’ll learn that the scenario I just gave is a simplified rendition – in fact, grossly simplified rendition – of brain function. Both sides of the brain can do what the other does, but it’s still a pretty good way to think about what happens when we’re traumatized, because it helps us understand the problem and what needs to be done to resolve it. And it squares with brain science.

So we’re getting closer, now, to understanding what’s going on in the mind of the girl and to helping her. Let’s take another step.

Sometime, after you’ve been asleep for several hours, your brain moves into a phase of sleep where your eyes begin to move back and forth beneath your closed lids. This sleep cycle is called REM – rapid eye movement. Have you ever gone to sleep upset about something, and then, when you wake up, while nothing has significantly changed about this situation, you don’t feel as upset as before? We say, “I got a good night’s sleep and I feel better.” But what is it about sleep that makes us feel less negative and more positive? Sleep researchers have postulated that the eyes moving back and forth stimulate the hemispheres of the brain alternately – left, right, left, right. And this bilateral stimulation is believed to open up a channel between the two hemispheres so information on the right can be moved to the left and visa versa – left, right brain integration.

When we do EMDR, it makes sense that the same thing is happening, because we cause the eyes of the client to move back and forth while the client focuses on a traumatic event. Do you think this might help the girl who knows she is safe in her logical brain, but still feels afraid in her right? Well, more about her next time. We’re going to keep tracking her.

But one other thing…for those who can see the video, I’ve got a light bar here that I use to cause people’s eyes to go back and forth. It also has with it a set of headphones that can be connected to the machine so that, when the lights are on the left, there is a tone that goes off in the person’s left ear. And I have a set of buzzers here, as well, that do the same thing. They’ve even got little lights on the top of them, so people can look at those, too. Now, I try to get people hooked up to all three of these, because you get more bilateral stimulation that way.

The point I wanted to make here is, that it’s not so much about eye movement as it is bilateral stimulation of the hemispheres. In fact, Dr. Shapiro has said that, if she had it to do over again, she would have called it simply reprocessing therapy, because it’s not so much about eye movement as it is about the bilateral stimulation of the brain – however you do it. The reason I bring this up is because this points more definitively to the brain itself and the capability within it for healing.

Since I’m a minister as well as a therapist, let’s look at the Bible for a moment. In Psalms 139:14, it says:

Psalms 139:14 – I praise You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are Your works. My soul knows it very well.

So David knew that he was created as an amazing creation of God. And the more we learn about the way the brain works and what it can do, the more we are astounded by the capabilities that God has put inside us for healing. He’s even made a way to overcome the traumas of life. We come equipped with sophisticated tools for struggle and to overcome difficulty – and I believe for a purpose greater than simply Darwinian survival.

All right, then. That’s the most elementary explanation I know how to give of EMDR. For those who want to know more, next time, in a presentation called, Reducing Painful Memories with EMDR, we will see how EMDR helps reintegrate trauma-related memory so that it’s no longer traumatic – no more panic attacks, flashbacks, anxiety or trauma- related depression. We’ll look at how that happens, what it looks like when it happens, and I’ll tell you some more stories.

We publish every other Friday, so check back. You can feel better.