Written by Kennedy Stevens
The practice of EMDR in psychology spans decades, however it only recently caught mainstream attention. Candidly, as someone who actively participates in therapy and works with an organization that supports survivors of sexual trauma, I knew very little about EMDR. So, I set out on a mission to find out how EMDR really works and how it can help survivors of sexual assault.
What is EMDR and how does it work?
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a form of psychotherapy used to help people who experience physical and emotional symptoms related to a traumatic event (Posmontier, Dovydaitis & Lipman, 2010). The premise of EMDR is that Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is caused by disturbing memories that haven't been adequately processed in the brain and are therefore easily triggered and re-lived. EMDR aims to reprocess these negative emotions by exposing them to the brain as the survivor’s attention is diverted, which ultimately changes the way they are stored in the brain (Kale, 2017). Surprisingly, the method of achieving this is relatively simple: stimulate each side of the brain in a rhythmic left-to-right fashion using visuals, sounds, or physical stimulation such as a tap on the knee while focusing on a traumatic memory.
This rhythmic left-to-right method is known as bilateral stimulation. During EMDR therapy, bilateral stimulation will activate the Adaptive Information System (AIP) in the brain which allows you to reprocess negative thoughts into positive thoughts, or allows a thought to easily fade away (Posmontier, Dovydaitis & Lipman, 2010). For example, as a person rides on a train and looks out the window at a continuous stream of scenery, the AIP allows each scene to fade from memory without any emotional significance. EMDR can similarly help someone with PTSD allow their negative memories to fade, lessening the emotional and behavioral impact of a traumatic event (Posmontier, Dovydaitis & Lipman, 2010).
Sound too good to be true? There’s a wide range of theories hypothesizing how EMDR works, as well as a number of skeptics. In an Instagram post earlier this year, actress Evan Rachel Wood praised EMDR as an effective tool in helping her process past trauma and manage PTSD (Gardner, 2019). A Marine Corps veteran underwent EMDR after a suicide attempt and it helped her alleviate the symptoms of PTSD and regain control of her thoughts and emotions (Keppler, 2019). EMDR also helped a survivor of childhood sexual abuse lessen the impact of her traumatic memories by comforting her childhood self (Kale, 2017). A man recovering from addiction and grief found that after only a few sessions, EMDR helped him understand his psychological triggers and process his emotions instead of immediately shutting down (Keppler, 2019). One individual explained, "It doesn’t delete all my memories like in Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, but it makes it so that I can remember the memory without my whole body re-feeling the trauma” (Kale, 2017).
How does EMDR help survivors of sexual assault?
If a survivor experiences psychological symptoms after their assault, memories of the experience can become "locked" inside the brain, which means they are not accessible to the AIP and cannot fade away without lasting impact (Posmontier, Dovydaitis & Lipman, 2010). These locked memories are easily triggered and over-accessed, often resulting in symptoms of PTSD which can lead to fear, isolation, substance abuse, and other factors that hinder one’s ability to heal (Posmontier, Dovydaitis & Lipman, 2010). EMDR therapy can help survivors neurologically reprocess the emotions they associate with their assault and lessen the effects of PTSD.
What will happen during your EMDR therapy session?
Before attempting EMDR, you should have a discussion with your therapist to determine if it is right for you. Once you have done so, the first step in the process is to determine your target image; a specific traumatic memory that you’d like to reprocess, along with its physical and emotional manifestations. You’ll also formulate a negative belief associated with the traumatic memory such as, "I am powerless" to eventually be replaced with a positive belief, such as, "I did the best I could" (Posmontier, Dovydaitis & Lipman, 2010).
Using bilateral stimulation, your therapist will help you reprocess the negative beliefs you associate with your target image. Techniques like moving their finger from side to side as you follow along, tapping on your open palms, or using a digital sound or electronic hand stimulation device will prompt bilateral stimulation as you focus on your target image (Posmontier, Dovydaitis & Lipman, 2010). Afterward, you will discuss your feelings, observations, and insights and continue the bilateral stimulation process to link your target image to a positive belief (Posmontier, Dovydaitis & Lipman, 2010). EMDR therapy generally spans over a series of eight sessions, sometimes more.
When should I seek EMDR treatment?
If you’ve experienced any form of trauma, EMDR therapy is worth exploring. Familiarize yourself with EMDR by conducting further research online; there are studies that provide statistical evidence that strongly supports the effectiveness of EMDR, however, the research is not definitive. Like any form of psychotherapy, EMDR will require you to resurface emotions linked to your trauma. If you aren't prepared to take this step, consult with a psychologist or counselor and try other forms of therapy before attempting EMDR. It is also important to ensure you are comfortable with your therapist before participating in any form of psychotherapy. Don't be discouraged if you participate in a session and find out the therapist or counselor isn't right for you - it is perfectly normal to meet with a variety of therapists before finding the right fit.
How can I access EMDR therapy?
Many, but not all, mental health professionals are licensed to practice EMDR therapy; there are specific levels of training they must complete in order to become certified. If you already see a psychologist, counselor, or psychiatrist, ask them if they are certified to practice EMDR. If not, they can likely connect you with someone who is. You can also click here to search an international directory of EMDR-certified professionals.
Brazier, Y. (2017, May 23). Psychotherapy: What to expect and how it works. Medical News Today. Retrieved from https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/156433.php.
Gardner, C. (2019, November 2). The New Trauma Therapy That Evan Rachel Wood Swears By. The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved from https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/rambling-reporter/new-trauma-therapy-evan-rachel-wood-swears-by-1205648.
Kale, S. (2017). The Pioneering Therapy Helping Sexual Violence Survivors. Vice Media. https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/d3dmjk/emdr-pioneering-therapy-sexual-violence-survivors
Keppler, N. (2019, July 11). The Rise of a Mysteriously Effective Therapy for Trauma. Vice Media. Retrieved from https://www.vice.com/en_ca/article/neap7z/the-rise-of-a-mysteriously-effective-therapy-for-trauma.
Posmontier, B., Dovydaitis, T., & Lipman, K. (2010). Sexual violence: psychiatric healing with eye movement reprocessing and desensitization. Health care for women international, 31(8), 755–768. doi:10.1080/07399331003725523