A closer look at how EMDR treatment can desensitize the stress resulting from trauma.
“It’s really beautiful. People come in and they’re upset, and you know they’re going to get upset when they start talking about it, but then they come out on the other side of it. It’s the most amazing experience,” says Nancy Hoey, a licensed professional counselor and certified clinical trauma professional at Grace Counseling LLC in Jefferson City.
Nancy is talking about EMDR, a form of psychotherapy treatment used to treat mental health issues.
EMDR was developed in 1987 by a psychologist named Francine Shapiro. The treatment, which stands for eye movement, desensitization, and reprocessing, involves a self-healing process in which the brain is stimulated to process past traumatic events. By analyzing these experiences, the individual undergoing the treatment begins to release the stress that results from trauma and initiates a post-treatment life void of issues related to the stressful event.
“When a disturbing event occurs, it can get locked in the brain. The images, sounds, thoughts, feelings, and body sensations can also get locked in the brain. What EMDR does is stimulate the information and allow the brain to process the experience. It mimics what happens in REM sleep, when your eyes move back and forth, so it’s basically your own brain that’s doing the healing,” says Nancy.
EMDR treatment is not only used for trauma-related issues. Its steps can also be applied to deal with chronic pain, anxiety, depression, and even sports injuries.
The EMDR treatment process is quite simple and straightforward. It starts with identifying what the treatment goals are. According to Nancy, this can take a session or two. Then, the patient discusses the issues that they’re struggling with, and from there, the therapist’s goal becomes to help the patient trace their issues back to the earliest experiences that triggered them, “unsticking” the issues from the brain in the process.
The session then proceeds with the therapist placing their fingers in front of the patient’s eyes and moving them back and forth. Other therapists may use a light bar, cones, or even tapping to stimulate the patient and achieve this back-and-forth movement. This is called bilateral stimulation and lasts about 20 to 30 minutes.
“Sometimes it gets really scary, so when the scary or upsetting part comes up, it can feel like the patient is moving into a dark tunnel. However, we want to make sure the patient comes out on the other side, and when they get to the other side of it, their memory is desensitized. The memory is still there, but the material is not as sensitive,” Nancy says.
The full EMDR experience may require several sessions to completely mentally detach the negative experiences and reduce their impact on the brain, but the amount of sessions will depend on each individual.
With increasing expansions and development in the medical field and neuroscience, EMDR treatment is only getting better understood.
“In the future, we’ll probably be able to look inside the brain when people are doing EMDR and really see what it is going on,” Nancy says.