A Therapeutic Intervention

Written by Diane Pryor on in Health & Wellness

While Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing, or EMDR, might be a new concept for some, it’s a process that has been around for more than 30 years. Its creator, psychologist Francine Shapiro, discovered that shifting her eyes from side-to-side helped reduce painful thoughts and memories. She also noted that this eye movement is exactly what happens with people when they are dreaming.

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While Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing, or EMDR, might be a new concept for some, it’s a process that has been around for more than 30 years. Its creator, psychologist Francine Shapiro, discovered that shifting her eyes from side-to-side helped reduce painful thoughts and memories. She also noted that this eye movement is exactly what happens with people when they are dreaming.

Her original process has gone through a few “tweaks” since that time but remains a very powerful method of psychotherapy to help people neutralize and integrate painful memories.

What an Emdr Session Looks Like

Your therapist will take a thorough history of your life, getting to know your “ups and downs,” and how those have influenced your beliefs about yourself. These are called “core beliefs,” and they can be both positive and negative. You and your therapist will identify the negative beliefs, and come up with “scenes” from the past when you felt that way. For example, you might feel that you never measure up to others. One of the scenes that you remember might be that you were ridiculed as a young child for wearing hand-me-down clothes. Some of these scenes may seem innocent enough as an adult, but can have lasting and harmful effects.

To begin a session, your therapist will help you practice relaxing breathing techniques, and will guide you in developing an imagined “Calm Place.” Once you are in a relaxed state, the therapist will do a type of bilateral stimulation, such as alternate tapping on your knees, or having you follow fingers as they move from side-to-side in front of your eyes or listening to music through headphones, with the sound alternating from ear-to-ear. At this point in the session, you will put yourself back in the particular scene that led to your identified negative belief about yourself, and you will re-experience it. The first pass through the scene will probably be the same as you remember. Eventually, new elements slip into the recollections and the scene begins to morph. For example, in the case of a bullying experience, a kind child might appear to help you through the bullying, or perhaps a teacher will emerge to punish those doing the bullying.

How Does Emdr Work?

Although there have been numerous studies showing the effectiveness of EMDR, it isn’t yet known exactly how the process works in the brain. Generally, it is believed that old neural networks holding those negative beliefs or memories seem to be replaced with new ones, which incorporate the more adaptive beliefs about self. The bilateral stimulation during processing ensures that both of the brain’s hemispheres are “on line,” so all of the capabilities and stored memories of both can be used toward healing.

We like to think of the process as making a stage for the subconscious to act out a healing play, giving you exactly the right images to let the trauma go, and to build up a positive core belief, such as “I was a great little kid” who happened to run into some bullies. Once these past experiences have been updated through EMDR, your therapist will work with you to integrate the new perspectives into your present-day life.

Lompoc Valley Medical Center: Counseling Center offers EMDR as one treatment among many others, all individual tailored to the specific patient. One EMDR patient recently noted, “At first, it seemed like a painful, emotional beginning, but it became very beneficial and rewarding to know I was able to deal with my traumatic past and turn it around as a positive future and feeling free.”

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Author: Diane Pryor, Marriage Family Therapist

Diane Pryor has a Bachelor of Science degree in psychology from Colorado State University and a Master of Science degree in Counseling from California State University at Northridge. She has been a practicing Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist for 22 years, primarily in private practice. She treats people from a wide variety of cultures and backgrounds.