What Is EMDR, and How Does it Help?

EMDR stands for “Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing” and is a treatment option for addiction, anxiety, and depression. EMDR is often utilized for treating trauma. EMDR can repair severed connections within the brain following a traumatic experience. This form of therapy can be a precursor to other treatment types, like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT). EMDR can help those struggling with progress in CBT and DBT by addressing the central nervous system’s changes caused by trauma. If your child has experienced trauma in their life, they might benefit from EMDR sessions. Many people report results following even just one session of EMDR.

Bilateral Stimulation and EMDR

EMDR harnesses the power of “bilateral stimulation” while an individual is in their session. Bilateral stimulation occurs when sensations are felt, heard, or seen rhythmically from left to right. Some common examples of bilateral stimulation used in EMDR are: 

  • Auditory: hearing a tone, sound, or “buzz” repeatedly from the left ear to the right ear.
  • Visual: following a therapist’s fingers from left to right during the EMDR session.
  • Tactile: tapping the body from the left shoulder to the right, or the left and right knees.

Bilateral stimulation helps a person relax while undergoing the therapy of EMDR. Following a traumatic event or series of events, the person’s central nervous system becomes altered and “frozen” in a high-alert state. Healing from trauma is about relearning how to feel safe and secure. When experiencing a relaxed and calm state of mind during EMDR, the person can focus on their negative beliefs formed from the trauma. Bilateral stimulation helps make the person feel safe, which they might struggle with following traumatic events.

What Happens During EMDR Sessions?

During a chat with Elyan Rosenbaum, Aaron Huey of Fire Mountain discusses the specifics of EMDR. For more, listen to “EMDR: The Magic Bullet for Trauma?” on the podcast “Beyond Risk and Back.” An EMDR session focuses on negative beliefs formed following trauma. A person’s trauma triggers can strongly reinforce these beliefs. The therapist asks the person to think about their negative beliefs and their trauma while guided through bilateral stimulation. In EMDR, the person is not going into specifics with the therapist in recollecting the event. The aim is to experience the thought processes while in a calm and relaxed state. The person is now in a safe and secure frame of mind to repair the severed connections in their brain.

Negative and Irrational Beliefs

Following a traumatic experience, a person might be holding onto irrational and negative beliefs about themselves and the world. Some of these beliefs now drive the person’s self-perception and overall outlook. According to Elyan Rosenbaum, these are some of the common irrational beliefs held by those suffering from trauma:

  • “I’m no longer in control.”
  • “I need to be perfect.”
  • “I have to please everyone.”
  • “I’m a bad person.”
  • “I can’t stand up for myself.”
  • “I should have done something to stop [the traumatic event].”
  • “I am helpless.”
  • “I should have known better.”
  • “I cannot trust anyone.”

During the EMDR session, the therapist will ask the person to think about these irrational beliefs and think about what new beliefs the person wants to adopt. The therapist will also ask the person how they feel or visualize the traumatic event; however, the therapist generally does not dive deeply into the details. Instead, during EMDR, a therapist focuses on the bodily sensations the person experiences. As the person thinks about these things, the therapist will guide the person through bilateral stimulation to reprocess the feelings while feeling safe and secure. By reprocessing the bodily sensations and visualizations associated with trauma in a calm and relaxed state, the brain can restore the connections frozen by trauma.

The Effectiveness and Length of Treatment

Before each session of EMDR, the therapist will ask the person what their current level of distress is regarding their trauma. The level of distress is subjective depending upon the person and rated on a scale of 1 to 10. The therapist asks again following the session. Generally, most people report a significant decrease in their distress following each session. Each person might require a different number of sessions for the healing to take hold. Some individuals may be healing from a singular event, like a car accident or a mugging, and find long-term results after only one session. For those experiencing complex and long-term trauma, they may need more sessions. After the brain repairs itself and connections are restored, other therapies, like CBT and DBT, can be more effective.

EMDR can help a person rewire their central nervous system following traumatic experiences. This therapeutic technique can restore vital connections between higher and lower-order brain functions that are “frozen” following trauma. When the brain returns to an optimal operation level, the person can then be more successful in other therapies, like DBT and CBT. Each person will respond to EMDR differently depending upon their trauma experience and other personal characteristics. However, EMDR can help a person feel significantly lower levels of distress after just one session. Healing from trauma can take time. EMDR can accelerate the healing process for your troubled child. If your child struggles with issues or problematic behaviors rooted in trauma, residential care might be the next right step for you. Fire Mountain Residential Treatment Center is here to help you and your child. Call us today at (303) 443-3343. We’re here to help your family’s fire burn the brightest!

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