Posts tagged ptsd
EMDR: what it is and from a therapist’s experience

Two weeks ago, I attended and completed a 5-day intensive EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing) training course. I went in being a skeptic learner. I came out from that training truly feeling the power of EMDR and I am never going back. 

The World Health Organization lists EMDR as one of the most effective treatments for trauma and is part of the clinical protocol in caring for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. EMDR is both an evolving theory about how information is perceived, stored and retrieved in the human brain and a specific treatment method based on this theory (Shapiro, 1995, 2001). EMDR allows the individual the room to process through ‘unprocessed’ memories and recreate meaning of the memories. EMDR therapy can be helpful in introducing newer and more adaptive neural pathways for what is happening currently and future anxieties as the negative associations are no longer present.


“The past affects the present even without our being aware of it.”

― Francine Shapiro

The Neurobiology of Memory

To understand how EMDR therapy works, we need to understand that memories are stored in the brain through neural networks. A neural network is a group of interconnected brain cells—neurons—that fire together. When traumatic memories are stored, they are part of maladaptive neural networks that limits the ability to adapt, process and resolve stress associated with the trauma.

REM Sleep

The eye movements used in EMDR therapy seem to stimulate the same processes that exist in rapid eye movement, or REM sleep. During REM, we are in deep sleep and we may dream. There is also stimulation in learning in the brain. The eye movements in EMDR represents bilateral stimulation that activates both left and right hemispheres of the brain. 

Also similar to REM sleep, eye movements from EMDR therapy help transfer memory, including the emotions, physical sensations and beliefs associated with the original memory, into semantic memory networks (long term memory). 

Who can benefit from EMDR?

A lot of people associate EMDR therapy with trauma, as it’s seen to be effective to treat individuals who struggle with trauma or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. However, EMDR therapy can be integrated into many different populations and mental health concerns such as for self-use, relationships, military, dissociation, children, addictions, grief, phobias and pain.

“Unlike other forms of psychological disorders, the core issue in trauma is reality.”

—Bessel van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score

Which memory of mine can be processed?
EMDR is effective regardless of when the event took place: it could be an incident from 15 minutes ago, 15 years ago. EMDR invites the client to have total free association across their life span: past, present and future. 

EMDR could process the future?

An anxiety refers to our anticipation of a future concern. Anxieties are present feelings of stress that are based on our past learned experiences to prevent and react to any similar situations in our future. Therefore it is possible for some of your anxieties to be linked with the same neural network. 

Self-practice: See if you can group your anxieties together based on past learnings with a core belief. Here is a list of some core beliefs to help you get started.

Is EMDR therapy triggering? What if I don’t want to bring up the past?
There are varying versions of processing through bilateral stimulation (eg. unrestricted, contained, or restricted processing) that the trained EMDR practitioner assesses in which to work with their client based on their best clinical judgement.

What if my eyes are strained or if I get headaches from the eye movements?
Through decades of research on this modality, EMDR therapy is now more adaptive than ever. You don’t have to do eye movements for it to work. Therapists are able to do tapping (eg. alternating from hand to hand), auditory (eg. tones played from one ear to the other), tactile bilateral stimulation depending on what works for the client.

My experience with EMDR

I found that the vividness and the disturbance of the incidents I wanted to process became so much more manageable. The memories I processed didn’t ‘disappear’ after the therapy treatment and I acknowledge and recognize all the emotions from the past experiences. 

However, I was able to let go of the feelings of resentment and disgust* because these were the emotions that kept me from moving past the memory. These were the feelings I latched onto that created the neural connection to keep thinking and reliving it. 

I joked with my partner, my “counsellor” during the training practicum, how we are now pretty much a group of hippie therapists: sending love and peace to all. As a therapist, EMDR training gave me glimpses of hope and wonder towards helping out those unable to get past their past. 

*these feelings are subjective to whatever experience/neural network you are processing

Paired with Art Therapy

I found that EMDR resourcing techniques, to access and activate memories, can be worked with Art Therapy especially when it comes to various visualization exercises such as the container and inner peaceful place.