EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. The title of this modality can be misleading because it is not just eye movements that are used in EMDR treatment or modality. At the beginning of EMDR, it was only used as a tool or modality, however more recently, it has become a treatment model for therapy as well. EMDR was founded by Dr. Francine Shapiro in 1987. She claimed to have been feeling “down” one day as she went for a walk and noticed her eyes darting back and forth. Upon this awareness, she claimed that she felt better upon moving her eyes back and forth, and then she began to study this back-and-forth eye movement in more depth in years to come. 

EMDR is said to be a “whole-brain approach” for trauma and/or adverse experiences.

In the field of Neuroscience, we know that trauma is mostly stored on the right side of the brain, but that trauma or adverse experiences affect our entire body and physiology. EMDR has been researched and is said to help to “unstuck” what is causing “yuck” in the nervous system by use of what is called “bilateral stimulation”.  It can be said to be just like when our eyes move back and forth in REM sleep (the deepest sleep we experience) underneath our eyelids when asleep! This is the time during a nice rest that we process our normal day. Isn’t that neat? Our brains know just what to do in processing an average conversation we had that day, something we read or learned, everything we did, or other things on our minds. Our brains do the best they can naturally to process all this wonderful information, however when an adverse experience happens or trauma, it is a bit more charged or heightened of an experience than just your average jog in the park. These experiences can be an overload of information as you can imagine. Sometimes the brain needs to store it differently in order to continue with normal life. Also, neat, right? I find it fascinating that our bodies and brains know exactly what to do to keep us safe! We are very intelligent beings. EMDR is like that REM state, but it is said to lend us a little extra support with the use of the bilateral stimulation while we are not asleep, but as part of therapy when we are awake.

As I mentioned earlier, bilateral stimulation is not just eye movements back and forth led by your therapist. My favorite bilateral stimulation is tapping or swaying back and forth using our own bodies. It is very soothing for our nervous system, and we naturally do these things as children to regulate our nervous systems. 

When I think of EMDR, I think similarly about all my modalities or my approaches, we go back to what is naturally healing, innate within our own unique psychology and physiology. The things we know already deeply that bring us back to our natural state of balance.

In the philosophy of EMDR, Dr. Francine Shapiro’s philosophy of care was said to be not about “what” happened to the client but about “how” or what was their experience and how the client perceived it, and how the memory was stored and experienced. With her approach, she was not concerned if the experience was true or not true but worked mostly on the memory and how it was stored or how it impacted the client.

EMDR is said to be a therapy treatment or tool used where the focus is on memory. Both implicit memory and explicit memory. 

I use EMDR as an entire treatment model as well as a tool for self-care, adverse experiences, sleep issues, and more. I use mostly swaying and tapping as I find that clients feel most in control rather than eye movements where the eyes can get tired, and they often rely on the therapist, and I find the eye movements to be overstimulating sometimes, however it is up to what is the most comfortable and effective for each individual client.

The therapist takes a compassionate stance and holding environment for the client during EMDR processing, however, they do not reflect to the client anything but allow them to fully process – this is very similar to the Focusing modality that I am also trained which was developed before EMDR and has some similar aspects of the role of the therapist, mindfulness components and resourcing/establishing safety that is used.  I see EMDR as an aide in the natural processing we are already doing, however, it is a helping hand just like the other modalities or tools that I utilize in therapy.