Tell Me Again, What Does EMDR Mean?
Since my area of specialty is working with trauma of all kinds, I am often asked this question about EMDR because it was originally developed as a method of treating post traumatic stress syndrome.
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing is considered a mind-body approach that focuses on bi-lateral stimulation, which is a fancy way of saying moving the eyes back and forth by following a light bar or experiencing alternating pulses from hand held sensor pads. The client focuses on a mental image of distress, emotions, beliefs (“positive” and “negative”) and body sensations during this process.
As first developed, this approach was considered a stand alone form of brief psychotherapy. Remarkable changes in stress levels, anxiety, and depression were reported in as few as four to eight sessions.
I have been trained in EMDR and use it in my practice in a highly modified form. The standard eight-step protocol used offers little room for therapist/client (or patient) discussion and pays no attention to the crucial necessity of the therapeutic relationship. It can feel like a manual driven and mechanized approach with proscribed steps and responses and with little creativity or spontaneity encouraged. Some of the focus on separating beliefs into positive or negative can over simplify complex processes of decision making, abstract reasoning and thoughtfulness. Beliefs as positive or negative, black or white leaves no room for F.Scott Fitzgerald’s definition of first rate intelligence: the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and remain capable of functioning.
Since I believe any form of therapy should address the unique individuality of the client/patient, I have sought to humanize this approach. I now use some of the techniques in on-going therapy when there is an impasse or an issue that might be more helpfully explored from a different angle. Used in this way, it can be helpful to offer the opportunity to bring a specific memory to mind, pay attention to what was felt emotionally and physically, and then allow for a drifting into the experience with alternating gentle sounds from a headset. Such modifications are less disruptive, sterile and more personal.
There are other cautions to the standard use of EMDR when used exclusively. Since it can be a powerful tool, it can generate strong and conflicting emotions that need to be attended to with patience and skill. If one is to seek this approach, make sure the therapist is experienced and knowledgeable in handling intense feelings and capable of integrating or making sense of trauma and not just in “opening someone up”. Retraumatizing anyone helps no one. Also, EMDR is a validated approach with post traumatic stress. If or when it is presented as a cure all i.e. performance enhancement, developing creativity, ADD and such, look with a skeptical eye. No one approach covers all the emotional landscapes. We are all far more complex and interesting than such a narrow view would suggest.