What is EMDR?
EMDR – Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing – is an innovative method of psychotherapy which has been used by trained mental health professionals to help an estimated half million people of all ages from many different countries. The focus of EMDR treatment is the resolution of emotional distress arising from difficult childhood experiences, or the recovery from the effects of critical incidents, such as automobile accidents, assault, natural disasters, or combat trauma. Other problems treated with EMDR are phobias, panic attacks, distress in children, and substance abuse. Another innovative focus of EMDR is performance enhancement: which aims to improve the functioning of people at work, in sports, and in the performing arts.
How Was EMDR Developed?
In 1987, psychologist Francine Shapiro discovered, by chance, that her voluntary eye movements reduced the intensity of negative, upsetting thoughts. Dr. Shapiro studied the impact of EMDR on reducing the symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in Vietnam combat veterans and victims of sexual assault. She found that this new method showed promise in decreasing the nightmares, flashbacks, and intrusive negative thoughts of the participants in her investigation.
Since 1989, EMDR has developed through the contributions of trained clinicians and researchers from all over the world. EMDR is now a complex method that brings together elements from the major clinical ic, cognitive, behavioral, and client-centered. There are eight phases of EMDR treatment (Shapiro, 1995), to be utilized by licensed mental health professionals only after completion of an approved training curriculum.
How Does EMDR Work?
It is not clear how EMDR works because neuroscience researchers are still exploring how the brain works. Therefore, how any method of psychotherapy works has yet to be established definitively. However, there is evidence for an innate information processing system that exists as part of human thinking processes. What research has suggested so far is that when a person is very upset, the brain cannot process information as it normally does. The event that provoked the upset becomes “frozen in time”, and “stuck” in the information processing system. When a person remembers this event, the recalling of sights, sounds, smells, thoughts, and impact on the way a person sees the world and relates to other people. Present-day incidents and interactions re-stimulate the experience of this upsetting event.
EMDR appears to produce a direct effect on the way the brain processes upsetting material. Researchers have suggested that the eye movements trigger a neuropsychological mechanism that activates an “accelerated information processing system”. Accelerated information processing is a phrase used in EMDR to describe the rapid working through, ‘metabolizing’, of upsetting experiences. Following successful EMDR treatment, the upsetting experiences are worked through to “adaptive resolution”. The person receiving EMDR comes to understand that the event is in the past, realizes appropriately who or what was responsible for the event occurring, and remembered by the person, but with much less upset.
Many types of therapy have similar goals. However, EMDR can be thought of as a physiologically-based therapy that allows a natural healing process to emerge. Clinical reports and some research findings suggest that the eye movements and the specific targeting of information about the upsetting events may permit direct access to the stored pathology in the brain and more rapid working through of disturbance than more conventional forms of therapy.
What are Ego States?
The brain is composed of billions of individual cells, called neurons. These neurons form simple and complex neural networks which hold specific information about the behaviors, beliefs, emotions, and body sensations associated with specific experiences. Complex neural networks can become engrained when positive experiences occur repeatedly (such as praise or encouragement), when negative experiences occur repeatedly (such as neglect or verbal abuse), or when highly traumatic experiences occur.
These types of complex neural networks can take on different points of view, like sub-personalities. For example, a neural network formed experiencing praise and encouragement may have an “I’m worthwhile” point of view, while a neighboring neural network formed experiencing verbal abuse may have an “I’m worthless” point of view. Likewise, a neural network holding a highly traumatizing experience may have an “I’m not safe” point of view.
An engrained neural network with a point of view is an ego state, or a part of self. It is very normal to have parts of self – everyone has them. People experience parts of self when they feel ambivalent. Perhaps you can recall a time when one part of you wanted to tell a lie while another part wanted to tell the truth, one part wanted to get drunk while another wanted to stay sober, one part wanted to eat smart while another wanted to eat junk, or one part wanted to give generously while another wanted to be miserly.
Ego states can develop in reaction to both positive and negative experiences. Ego states formed by positive/affirming experiences live in the present. Ego states formed by negative/ wounding experiences, such as trauma, abuse, neglect, or unmet developmental needs, are stuck in the past. Some ego states are large, such as the part of self that includes all the behaviors and experiences of a person’s occupation, and some are small, such as one holding the experience of a single event at age three. Ego states are dynamic and change over time – usually becoming more engrained (for better or worse), as new events are interpreted based on past experience and bias.
Parts of self can interact with other parts of self, in a cooperative or combative manner. Because ego states can have different points of view, they can have competing agendas. That can lead to internal conflicts or double binds. You may be aware of internal battles about something you should or should not do, or should or should not believe.
The DNMS can help wounded ego states have the corrective emotional experiences necessary to get unstuck from the past and come forward to live comfortably in the present. It can also help resolve conflicts between ego states. All this can lead to positive changes in emotions, beliefs, and behaviors.
What is an Actual EMDR Session Like?
EMDR is a client-centered approach in which the clinician works with the client to identify the specific problem or problems that will be the focus of treatment. Following a defined protocol, the mental health professional help she images, self-referenced negative belief, emotions, and body sensations associated with a targeted problem or event. The client is then asked to develop a new positive belief about the self to replace the negative belief. The believability of this new belief is rated while the client thinks of the disturbing event.
The client is prepared for EMDR and then is asked to bring to mind all the negative information identified with the problem. The client follows the fingers of the mental health professional to produce the voluntary eye movements. After each set of eye movements, the client is asked to briefly comment. The mental health professional facilitates the client’s attention and works to support the client as he or she processes the upsetting material, making clinical decisions about the direction of the intervention along the way. The goal of EMDR treatment is the rapid processing of information about the client’s positive belief, and the possibility of behaving more optimally in relationships with others and at work.
Shapiro, F. (1995). Eye Movement Desensitization & Reprocessing, New York: Guilford. For Research Information Regarding EMDR, please view http://www.emdr.comhttp://www.emdr.com.
Trudy has over 20 years experience working with individuals, couples, and families. In addition to clinical work, Trudy provides community crisis intervention services, consultation, workshops and seminars to churches, businesses, schools, and community groups/organizations, on various topics related to relationship issues, personal growth, trauma, parenting and recovery.