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What is EMDR? How Can It Help?

Updated: May 8, 2023

The World Health Organization (2013) and the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies (ISTSS, 2018) both agree that EMDR is an effective and efficient therapy for children, teens, and adults who have been through distressing events (for example, bullying, the death of a loved one, violence, neglect).


With the burgeoning field of neuroscience, we are learning more and more about how the brain is impacted by distressing experiences. And this means that we are improving our understandings of how to help people who are struggling with mental health problems. EMDR is at the forefront of this exciting era. EMDR was developed by Francine Shapiro and is based on her theory of Adaptive Information Processing (AIP). This theory is used to guide the practice of EMDR and explains how and why EMDR works.

EMDR is an integrative psychotherapy that has been extensively researched. EMDR helps people with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), complex PTSD (cPTSD), and other mental health problems and physical issues. The model that EMDR is based on, called Adaptive Information Processing (AIP), asserts that many mental health problems are caused by traumatizing or disturbing life events that aren't properly processed by the brain, or aren't processed at all. As a result, the person’s brain isn’t able to use the information communicated by these events in a useful way that helps the person adaptively learn from the experience and move on in a healthy way.


We know that traumatic events and/or upsetting negative life experiences can be so overwhelming that they get stored in the brain in a way that isn't helpful. The brain can get “stuck” and the experiences get stored in a way that is isolated from the rest of the memory systems in the brain. People think that this is the underlying cause of mental illness and some physical illnesses and symptoms.


In other words, the way information is stored and linked in emotional, cognitive, somatosensory, and temporal processes is not optimal. So, memories of distressing experiences can be difficult to remember in terms of when, where, and the context they took place. These memories can be experienced in a scattered way, in an overwhelming way, or as if they are happening over and over again in the present. As a result, new information (for example, I am safe now), positive events (for example, receiving a hug from a friend), and feelings (for example, comfort or joy) can't connect with the disturbing memory in the brain in a useful way. This problem with linking and the lack of integration that comes from it keep symptoms going.


How EMDR Can Help You


Through a standard set of processes and clinical guidelines that include alternating bilateral visual, auditory, and/or tactile stimulation. This can involve looking at the therapist's hand as she moves it back and forth, listening to a sound that alternates in the left and right ear, or doing a butterfly hug.


EMDR helps children, teens, and adults get over traumatic and disturbing experiences in their lives. This process wakes up the parts of the brain that got stuck because the upsetting life events were so overwhelming, and makes it easier for the brain to helpfully process and integrate new information (eg, this happened to me in the past, but it's over now). EMDR helps people heal from past experiences, and positively deal with current triggers and possible problems in the future.


When you participate in EMDR therapy, you can expect the following to happen:

  • Reduction in present symptoms (for example, anxiety, depression, ADHD, mood swings, addiction and self-destructive behaviour, unexplained pain, and nightmares)

  • Decreased or eliminated distress from disturbing memories (including body memories, such as uncomfortable feelings and sensations that seem to ‘come out of nowhere’)

  • Feel more positively about yourself and see yourself in a new, more realistic light (for example, I am lovable, I am not responsible for everything, I am safe now),

  • Feel more calm and peaceful

  • Reduction in physical symptoms that are associated with the past overwhelming experiences (for example, racing heart, hyper-vigilance, numbing, chronic stomach problems, fatigue).


If you think EMDR could help you or someone you care about, please contact us to set up an appointment. We’re here to help.


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