Julie Miller's Mental Health Blog

Archive for the ‘"E" is for EMDR’ Category

I wonder what questions folks have out there about EMDR…  I’ve been asked if it’s like hypnosis, and I always say:


EMDR does not change your level of consciousness, or brain waves, like hypnosis.  EMDR cannot be used to dredge up repressed memories.  EMDR is not intrusive and does not change memories (other than to reduce the level of distress associated with them).

I’ve been asked if EMDR can erase memories that someone wants to get rid of.


EMDR can reduce the level of distress associated with distressing memories.  It can help reframe what one thinks of oneself (e.g., “I am responsible; it was my fault” can reframe to “I did the best I could with what I knew at the time; it wasn’t my fault.”)

I’ve been asked if it’s like brainwashing.


EMDR doesn’t wash your brain, or anything associated with it.

EMDR is intended to kick-start the adaptive information processing system (AIP, as explained by Francine Shapiro) so that previously unresolved overwhelming (i.e., “traumatic”) experiences can finally be brought to adaptive resolution.

There is so much information available about EMDR online.  If you are interested in learning more, please check one of the following sites:




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.

“EMDR” is an acronym for “Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing.”  This therapeutic process was first stumbled upon by Francine Shapiro in the 1980s.  The story I heard when I was first trained in 2000 was as follows:

Francine had some family issues going on, and had received a letter from her brother.  She was upset.  She went out for a walk, and on one side of the sidewalk was a fence that cast shadows to the other side of the sidewalk.  Francine voluntarily moved her eyes as she walked by each shadow, moving her eyes from right to left and back again.  When she got to the end of the sidewalk, she noticed she wasn’t distressed about the letter any longer, and she had not forgotten about it, not been hypnotized, not dissociated, and not been distracted.  When she brought up the letter, the distress was simply gone.  Being a graduate student at the time, she became interested in what had happened, and began to look into it.  She practiced on family and friends, and developed the trauma protocol we basically still use today.  She began working with Vietnam-era vets in the VA system and discovered EMDR works to reduce disturbance about past traumatic experiences that continue to impact on the individual’s life.

Through the last two decades, research has been conducted with EMDR that shows not only its effectiveness in reducing distress about unprocessed traumatic experiences, but also in working through just about any issue you would go to a therapist to address:  anxiety, depression, chemical dependence, eating disorder, grief/loss, phobias, chronic pain, etc.  Research has also shown that it is not the eye movements that are the key to how it works; it’s any form of bilateral stimulation (BLS) that kick starts the innate information processing system all humans have in the central nervous system.  This information processing system is adaptive, allowing us all as humans to learn from our day-to-day experiences.  If that system gets overwhelmed by any particular event or series of events, the processing system gets stuck and we can’t get through the process of learning from the experience, throwing away the garbage, and filing the memory away in old storage.  If we can’t get the experience(s) to run through the adaptive information processing system (a phrase coined by Francine Shapiro), then the system starts to just repeat repeat repeat, hoping maybe THIS time it’ll run through.  Like a broken record, skipping and going back to the same place every time, never moving forward.

With unprocessed traumatic material, this “skipping” process looks like recurring dreams/nightmares, flashbacks, intrusive thinking, getting triggered, avoiding triggers, hypervigilence and dissociation.  My system is trying to get it processed through, but keeps getting stuck.

EMDR helps kick-start that processing system that’s gotten stuck around a particular issue, and keeps it’s engine running as you work through the process.  You will focus on a particular issue (like Francine and her letter) and the bilateral stimulation will keep you processing alone instead of the system shutting down.

EMDR must be conducted by a highly trained clinician who has plenty of experience using EMDR.  You can find more information about EMDR and trained clinicians at the following sources: