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January 19, 2024

Exploring EMDR Therapy: A Path to Healing with Pooja Ganatra, LCSW-A, LCAS-A

by Pooja Ganatra, LCSW-A, LCAS-A

EMDR: Perhaps you heard the buzzword on social media or perhaps you read it while researching trauma therapy. Whatever the case may be, EMDR therapy is becoming an increasingly more widespread term within the realm of trauma therapy and psychotherapy in general; but what exactly is EMDR? Is it some kind of woo-woo therapy, is it hypnosis or is it some new age-hippy-dippy-drink-the-Kool-Aid kind of therapy? Is it something based on science or something simply to do with moving my eyes around? These are common thoughts many have when it comes to what they have heard about this type of therapy.

What is EMDR therapy?

EMDR therapy is a powerful and evidence-based psychotherapy approach developed by Francine Shapiro in the late 1980s. EMDR which stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, was initially designed to help individuals struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), however, it has proven effective in alleviating distress with a wide variety of other mental health disorders and conditions such as grief, chronic pain, depression, OCD, anxiety, performance anxiety and others.

The fundamental concept underpinning EMDR therapy revolves around the notion that lingering unresolved past experiences can exert a lasting influence on our current and future states of well-being. These unresolved incidents often become “stuck” within our cognitive framework, engendering negative beliefs about ourselves and the world around us. EMDR therapy serves as a transformative modality for individuals, offering them a means to methodically address and recover from these distressing memories through a more self-compassionate lens. It operates within the framework of Adaptive Information Processing (AIP), a paradigm where all symptoms are regarded as adaptive responses that once served to ensure our survival in the face of trauma.

What are the Differences Between EMDR and Other Therapies?

EMDR therapy stands out from other therapeutic approaches in several key ways:

1. Targeted Trauma Processing:

EMDR therapy focuses on identifying and processing specific traumatic memories or distressing events. By pinpointing these events and their associated negative beliefs, emotions, and body sensations, EMDR helps individuals address the root causes of their distress.

2. Faster Symptom Reduction:

Compared to traditional talk therapy, EMDR often leads to quicker symptom reduction. While traditional therapy may involve extensive discussions and explorations, EMDR aims to reprocess distressing memories efficiently.

3. Bilateral Stimulation:

A hallmark of EMDR therapy is bilateral stimulation, which can include guided eye movements or other rhythmic forms of stimulation moving from the right to the left side and back again. Other forms may include bilateral tapping of arms or feet, rocking your own body, and auditory stimulation. This unique aspect of EMDR facilitates the brain’s natural healing processes and engages both hemispheres of the brain, thereby effectively reducing the emotional charge of traumatic memories, and allowing individuals to process such memories and associated emotions more efficiently, ultimately leading to symptom relief.

4. Limited Verbalization:

EMDR therapy does not require extensive talking on the part of the client. While traditional talk therapy involves long conversations to explore thoughts and emotions, EMDR focuses more on processing and transforming distressing memories through bilateral stimulation.

5. Transformation Over Elimination:

EMDR is not designed to eliminate or erase unwanted thoughts, feelings, body sensations, or memories. Instead, it focuses on adaptively transforming them and acknowledges that our brains naturally seek healing and aims to support this innate process. The goal is to help clients reprocess these distressing elements and integrate them into a healthier perspective, allowing the brain’s natural healing processes to take place.

Is EMDR Only for Soldiers?

A frequent phrase I often hear when it comes to trauma therapy is, “But I thought only soldiers get PTSD”- or something along those lines. Though we have come a long way from initial definitions of trauma, many people still believe they should not be experiencing any difficulties because they didn’t go fight a war or something very clearly defined as an awful event that didn’t happen to them. Many people also believe because the event/situation they experienced was not as bad as what others may go through, they should be fine or even that they “could have it worse,” leading to prolonged distress.

Trauma is more complex than a handful of situations. Trauma is more than just a formal PTSD diagnosis. Trauma can come in many shapes and sizes and EMDR therapy takes this into consideration. Trauma can be ongoing for years or just one event.

A broader, more trauma-inclusive perspective involves categorizing trauma into two major subtypes: traumas of commission and traumas of omission. Traumas of commission encompass the readily recognizable forms of trauma, such as deliberate physical, sexual, or emotional harm inflicted upon another. Traumas of omission encompass situations where vital life experiences, critical for the healthy development of an individual, are lacking, taken away, or denied, influencing their functioning in their current lives. This includes scenarios where individuals experience such deprivation, whether intentionally or unintentionally. In other words, trauma isn’t just what happens TO you but it’s also what didn’t happen FOR you.

What is Experiencing EMDR Therapy Like?

EMDR therapy follows a structured eight-phase approach that typically includes:

1. History-taking and treatment planning

Your therapist will gather information about your history and identify target issues you want to work on during treatment.

2. Preparation

You’ll learn about the EMDR process and develop coping strategies to manage distress. Here we will work on developing various resources and implementing their use in your day-to-day life to help with increasing your ability to learn ways in which you can regulate yourself.

3. Assessment

Specific memories or distressing events are identified, and negative beliefs associated with them are pinpointed.

4. Desensitization

During this phase, you’ll engage in bilateral stimulation, often through guided eye movements or other forms of bilateral stimulation, some of which were discussed earlier. At this time, you will be focusing on identified events and asked to focus on a negative image, belief, feeling, and body sensation tied to that event. Rather than being asked about details of the trauma, you will be asked to notice what comes up and shifts during BLS in images, beliefs, body sensations, and emotions that are tied to the distressing event. Sets of BLS will be given until the disturbing images, beliefs, feelings, and body sensations become less distressing for you. You, as the client, will always be in full control of yourself and the experience and can ask to stop at any point during the reprocessing- often this will be communicated through a hand signal you and your therapist decide on.

5. Installation

Positive beliefs are reinforced and strengthened to replace the negative ones associated with the distressing memories.

6. Body scan

Any remaining physical tension or discomfort is addressed.

7. Closure

Your therapist will guide you through relaxation techniques to ensure you feel grounded and safe before leaving the session.

8. Reevaluation

In the subsequent sessions, your therapist will assess your progress and adjust the treatment plan as needed.

Caveats: You may not finish reprocessing a distressing event in one session. In that case, your therapist will help you ground yourself and close a session. At the start of your next session, your therapist will discuss with you any new developments since you last met- this may include inquiries regarding any new memories, insights, or symptomology that may have presented in between your sessions and work to address them with you. Please note if you desire to have more traditional talk therapy sessions along with your EMDR sessions- you are always welcome to discuss this with your therapist- EMDR is an individualized approach and what one person needs may not be the same as what another person needs.

Benefits of EMDR Therapy

EMDR therapy offers numerous benefits, making it a valuable option for those seeking healing and personal growth:

1. Quicker symptom relief

EMDR therapy often leads to quicker symptom reduction compared to traditional talk therapy.

2. Long-lasting results

Many individuals experience enduring improvements after completing EMDR treatment.

3. Versatility

EMDR can be effective for various mental health issues, including PTSD, OCD, anxiety, depression, phobias, and more.

4. Less re-traumatization

EMDR’s structured approach minimizes the risk of re-traumatization, making it a safer option for individuals with a history of trauma.

Ready to take the first step towards healing and a brighter future? Reach out to our dedicated EMDR therapists at Avance Care Behavioral Health today to embark on your journey to emotional well-being and transformation.

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