What is EMDR and How Does it Help PTSD?

 

Finding effective treatments for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can be tough. As anyone who’s experienced it knows, PTSD is painful in many ways.

Deep anxiety and involuntary re-living of the initial trauma are common. PTSD symptoms are caused on a neurological level. Essentially, the traumatic events have created such a strong impression within the brain and in the memory that the survivor is caught, unable to move beyond the neurological impact.

Thankfully, therapists have very useful tools to help survivors move forward and into healing. One of these is EMDR.

What Is EMDR?

EMDR stands for eye-movement desensitization and reprocessing. While it is a mouthful, it is a very powerful, empirically proven treatment method for PTSD. It was developed in the late 1980s by psychologist Francine Shapiro.

One element of PTSD is that it keeps the body in a near-perpetual state of fight-or-flight mode. These are the body’s natural reactions against anything it thinks may be a threat, even if it isn’t. It’s how it would protect itself in earlier, dangerous human environments.

Such threats include everyday experiences that may appear benign to outsiders. To someone with PTSD, however, even the smallest triggers or reminders can push them to fight, flee, or freeze.

How Does EMDR Work?

The beauty of EMDR is that it is able to address the trauma of PTSD and its triggers directly at the neurological level. Part of how it does this is through something called bilateral brain stimulation. This means that a simple physiological stimulus is given, alternating between both hemispheres of the brain. The external, alternating stimulus can be visual, auditory, or physical.

If visual, the client might watch the therapist move their finger slowly back and forth. Or, they might watch lights move back and forth across a screen. If auditory, the patient will often wear headphones with a gentle tone or calm music alternating from one ear to the other. Physical input can be in the form of gentle handheld buzzers or even the patient crossing their arms and alternately tapping their shoulders.

While this may sound complicated, it’s not. The client sits comfortably and relaxed during this time. The therapist will work with the client to identify specific memories to work on during each session. Importantly, clients do not have to spend undue time recalling their trauma in EMDR.

What Are EMDR Sessions Like?

The dual-hemisphere stimulation helps the brain reprocess traumatic events and distressing memories. While the patient recalls the traumatic events for short periods, the alternating stimuli allow the mind to reprocess the trauma at the neurological level. EMDR facilitates the brain’s healing.

While the client is receiving the stimulus and working on particular memories, the therapist will ask them questions and have them pause to evaluate the physical and emotional sensations they have. The stimulus never pushes clients beyond their comfort level when asked to recall memories or process trauma during EMDR.

Similar to REM

Researchers believe that the process of EMDR acts in a way similar to the rapid eye movement (REM) stage of sleep. REM sleep produces dreams, elevated brain activity, muscle relaxation, and more. REM is vital for memory processing.

Rewiring the Brain

Ultimately, EMDR helps the brain rewire itself and tap into what scientists call the traumatic memory network. When it does this, it can reprocess and heal its trauma. EMDR is incredibly helpful. It goes beyond traditional talk therapy and desensitization techniques (both of which are helpful, of course) to offer radical relief.

EMDR is a popular treatment for soldiers and those recovering from sexual abuse or rape. But its effectiveness extends to many other sources of anxiety and PTSD as well.

If you or a loved one is struggling with PTSD or other anxiety disorders, I urge you to contact our office today for help. We have therapists trained in EMDR and other trauma treatments who have seen many clients overcome their symptoms with the help of EMDR. We are here for you.

Learn more about trauma therapy!

Menu