Julie Miller's Mental Health Blog

EMDR is one of the most amazing forms of therapy out there.  Yes, I’m biased.  I am a certified EMDR therapist and spend most of my work life conducting EMDR sessions.  I’ve had EMDR as a client as well, and I can attest to its effectiveness.

Like most humans, you are probably wondering, “Now, how does EMDR work?” I’m here to tell you that we (meaning, researchers and practitioners of EMDR) don’t know it’s mechanism.  Much like penicillin, we still don’t know why or how it works.  We just know it does.

SPECT scans (Dr. Daniel Amen’s studies especially) seem to show that blood flow in certain areas of the brain increases after a client has EMDR.  Other forms of brain studies have shown that parts of the right side of the brain “go dark” when a client thinks about a traumatic incident from their past, signifying that the event or incident was overwhelming to the individual’s central nervous system.  The right side of the brain appears  necessary to processing events and experiences we have as humans, so when it’s dark, it’s not working, and we can’t process that experience or event.  EMDR appears to bring the “lights” back on in the right side of the brain, and keep them on, while the client is talking about and focusing on the overwhelming event or experience.  This enables a fairly rapid processing of the targeted event.

Processing the event allows the client to bring all the adult resources and experiences the client has to bear on the issue, quickly coming to adaptive resolution.  This means that the images, sounds, smells, somatic sensations, even tastes associated with the experience are less disturbing.  The emotions associated with the incident become less intense, less disturbing.  And finally, the thoughts the client has about him/herself are reframed in a way that feels true.

Let’s take the example of a car accident in which the client is a passenger.  The image might be sitting on the ground after getting out of the car, looking at the crumpled car, smelling the burning rubber of the tires.  The sound of  the sirens approaching from afar.  The thought “I should have done something.”  What the client wants to believe is that, “It wasn’t my fault; I couldn’t have done anything to avoid it,” and perhaps this positive belief currently feels completely untrue.  The emotions might be fear, pain and guilt.  The intensity of the distress is a 7 on a scale of 0-10.   The physical sensations in the present moment is tension in the stomach and chest, and a clenched jaw.

In processing through this experience, the individual comes to a place where the image feels further away or blurrier, and has no emotional impact.  He or she can no longer hear the sirens or smell the burning rubber when they think of the original incident.  The client moves from fear, hurt and shame through anger to calm.  He or she believes the thought, “It wasn’t my fault; I couldn’t have done anything to change it.”  The level of distress moves down the scale from a 7 to a zero or 1.  No distress is felt in the body.

The client can then also take this new perspective on the accident into other memories or experiences in which they felt as if the situation was their fault.  This may include earlier experiences as a child, or other situations in the present.  The client can imagine possible future situations in which he or she typically feels responsible for things that are not his or her fault, and can imagine how he/she might respond differently NOW, given this new perspective.

Freedom from the past.  Options about the present and future situations.

A single incident like this example could conceivably be processed in one session of target work in EMDR.  Obviously, there are no guarantees, but I have worked with individuals who completed their work on a single incident in one 90 minute session.

Relief in 90 minutes – worth it?  You bet.


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