What is EMDR therapy, and how can it be used to treat mental illness?
A few months ago I featured a post discussing 3 different types of therapy available for those suffering from mental health issues. This covered the more commonly talked about CBT, DBT and ACT therapies. However upon completion of this post I was curious about what else was out there.
Laura Smith author of Laura’s Books and Blog’s kindly offered to discuss EMDR therapy during July’s guest blog. EMDR is lesser known than it’s counterparts. But it’s one that I’ve had a distinct interest in since hearing about it on a podcast.
About EMDR Therapy.
Have you ever seen the 2004 movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind? The premise of this movie revolves a company that can erase unwanted memories while you sleep. We all have terrible experiences that we’d like to forget. Whether it’s as extreme as combat or as commonplace as an embarrassing moment from highschool. There’s currently no machine that will erase our memories for us. However, there is a newer form of therapy that can change the way that you remember these terrible moments. The treatment is called Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, or EMDR.
This form of therapy is only twenty five years old but has a high success rate in treating PTSD patients. It’s also proved effective at treating the symptoms of depression and anxiety. It takes your most traumatic memories and desensitizes you from the mental and physical effects.The memory is still there. It just doesn’t bother you anymore. After all, we need to remember these terrible experiences so that we can learn from them and mature. We just don’t want them to keep us up at night or hold us back from trying new things.
EMDR is a type of therapy that my therapist suggested I try in our sessions. She had recently been trained in the technique and thought it might help me. It takes several sessions and numerous repetitions before it sticks, but you start to feel better immediately after each session.
One of the first exercises that you learn is the eye and hand movement technique. Your therapist may ask you to follow their moving hand or to tap as you focus on a traumatic memory. Think of it as that iconic image of a hypnotist waving a watch back and forth to put their patient into a trance. Instead, the movements are said to help your brain process the traumatic memories. It extracts the thoughts that are keeping the feelings raw like an open wound and allows them to heal.
In the next session, my therapist asked me questions and wrote them down on a form that she would refer to throughout the treatment. Most therapy sessions only last an hour, which isn’t enough time to get through the entire EMDR process. Even patients like me who haven’t been through extreme trauma need several sessions to get through the paperwork.
Most of the questions ask you to describe yourself and your negative feelings when you’re in a depressed or anxious state. The goal is to target the memories related to these feelings so that these symptoms disappear.
Next comes visualization exercises. First, I was asked to envision a box in which to store my negative thoughts. This box is to be used not just in our sessions but any time I’m feeling overwhelmed. Just the act of locking these ideas away can help to calm me down and put things in perspective. It gives you a control over your emotions that you wouldn’t have otherwise, to turn ideas into tangible objects that can be moved and locked away, out of sight. That doesn’t mean that they can’t come back, but it does help you to get through those tense moments where feelings and memories overwhelm you.
In the next session, your therapist will ask you to think of your earliest memory when you began to feel the feelings that you named during the question and answer session. After I thought of my memory, I was asked to close my eyes and think about it for a minute or two. Then, in a few sentences, I explained what images, thoughts, or feelings came to mind.
“I also had to name on a scale of zero to ten how disturbing the memory was.The goal was to get down to zero. This requires the repetitive task of visualizing and then explaining what comes to mind over and over.”
Your therapist may ask you to tap on your arms or legs or follow their hand with your eyes the way you learned in the first session. My therapist uses a pulser tool. The pulser looks like two computer mice that you hold in each hand. They’re attached to the box which my therapist uses to create different levels of pulses or rhythmic vibrations in my hands as I hold them while thinking of these memories. It’s not painful or numbing; it’s just a firm sensation that helps with the healing and keeps you from having to multitask with hand or eye movements as you process your memories.
For each memory, you really explore every facet of what you remember, from sights to feelings to details you probably haven’t thought of in years. After each observation you make, your therapist will tell you to go on that feeling and then close your eyes for another minute and keep deep diving. Your mind may wander, or you may feel like you have nothing else to say or think about this memory. That’s a good sign, and that’s usually when your therapist will ask you to check in on the memory and rate your level of distress.
Gradually, you begin to dissociate those negative feelings with the memory. The visual still stays intact, but you don’t feel sad or stressed when you remember it. It loses all significance as one of the roots of your negative thoughts. Once you get the memory’s level of distress down to 0, it’s time to move on to the next memory associated with your negative thoughts. The more traumatic the memory, the more time you will need to spend in this visualization session. You may even need multiple therapy sessions for one memory. The goal is to keep visualizing until it no longer affects you.
The average patient requires six to eight sessions in order to get through the EMDR process. It requires visiting multiple memories and focusing on them until you get to a 0 on the level of distress that they cause you. To me, this is better than any kind of memory erasure. I don’t want to forget chunks of my life or the lessons that they taught me. I just don’t want to be haunted by them or have them affect my present and future choices.
EMDR has helped me immensely in being able to live with past traumas and to not let them define my present state of mind. As someone who dwells on the past, both good and bad, it’s a relief to no longer be haunted by the bad memories or to wish that I had done things differently. Instead, they are mere learning tools with no emotional weight. It doesn’t require a drug or a science fiction-like procedure to accomplish. It just takes you, your therapist, and time.