EMDR or Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing was first developed by psychologist Francine Shapiro when she went on a walk to think through some disturbing events in her life. She noticed that she no longer felt distressed and then remembered her eyes had naturally been moving back and forth during the walk. Over the years, Dr. Shapiro developed the formal method of EMDR including elements of cognitive-behavioral therapy, psychoanalytic theory, and body-centered therapy, as well as the alternate stimulation of the right and left hemispheres through of the use of eye movement, tapping or auditory tones. Today EMDR is used worldwide to treat the effects of trauma in both adults as well as children.
EMDR uses bilateral (left side, right side) visual, auditory or tactile stimulation to process traumatic or overwhelming life experiences. We all have an innate ability to constructively process events in our lives, extract wisdom from what has happened and move on. However, when we experience an event that is highly distressing or life threatening this innate ability shuts down as our body moves to protect itself.
While this protective instinct is a very good thing, it also presents a problem. As rational thought stops, so does our ability to constructively process and adaptively integrate our experience. As a result, energy and emotion can get locked in our nervous system. Consequently, we can experience recurring and intrusive thoughts, dreams, emotions and physical sensations. It is as if the event is still happening. Even fairly benign situations or events can trigger an emotional reaction or physical symptom.
EMDR's unique and highly structured application of bilateral stimulation can activate the brain so it can begin to process and integrate these locked memories in a more adaptive way. The memory may still be regarded as unpleasant, but it is no longer activating or triggering. And energy is freed up so you can more live more fully and with greater ease.
Though we tend to think of trauma as a life-threatening event, “trauma” can be any event that disrupts one’s sense of safety or well- being and leaves negative beliefs about oneself and/or the world. For children, who simply due to their age and stature are more dependent and less skilled, a traumatic event could include a playground accident, choking on a piece of food, a medical procedure or hospital stay, the loss of a pet or grandparent, or a fight with a friend. More important than the event itself is the degree to which the child perceived her or himself as powerful and able to take some type of action on her or his behalf. If her natural “survival” instinct is thwarted, the child freezes. Neurochemicals (like adrenaline) sensory data (like sounds, sights, smells) and corresponding emotions (like fear or panic) get stuck in the body. As a result, the child stays in emergency mode, ready to respond to danger. Small, seemingly random occurrences remind the child of the traumatic event and set off an alarm in the child’s brain and body. Without thinking the child reacts with highly charged and intense behaviors to any triggers or reminders of the traumatic or overwhelming event.
This is where EMDR can help. As the child is playing and thinking about the traumatic event the EMDR therapist incorporates bi-lateral stimulation (right-left movement) through tapping games, drumming, stomping, rocking, swaying or eye movement. The skillful blending of playing, talking, story-telling and bi-lateral movement enables the child to effectively process and discharge the associated sensory data, emotion and neurochemicals. Through this healing process the child also reconnects to her/his previously self-affirming beliefs in her/his competence, power, safety and well-being.
EMDR has been found to be effective in treating a wide range of issues including:
panic attacks and phobias
medical procedures, surgeries and hospitalizations