Altering Perceptions

How EMDR therapy treats trauma and traumatic memories

EDMR treats trauma

When people suffer from traumatic events or memories, it can affect their lives in many ways. One form of treatment is eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy. This is a structured therapy which has the patient briefly focus on the trauma or memory, while simultaneously experiencing other stimuli — usually eye movements — according to the American Psychological Association. Local practitioners explain that this technique can reduce the intensity of traumatic memories and help form new, positive beliefs.

The basics of EMDR

“When people have trauma in their background, their perception changes and they view the world as a more dangerous place.” -Dr. Boyd Sherbourne, Medford

Psychologist Francine Shapiro developed EMDR therapy in 1987 and initially used it to treat post-traumatic stress disorder, says Susan Waterman, a licensed clinical social worker in Medford. “EMDR has been well researched over the years and strongly recommended as an effective treatment for trauma,” she explains, noting that disaster response teams around the world use it.

The therapy can be employed soon after a trauma or many years afterward, Waterman says. “Anytime someone has felt helpless or terrified — EMDR helps people suffering from those symptoms.”

Unlike other treatments that focus on altering emotions and responses resulting from a traumatic experience, EMDR therapy focuses on the memory and attempts to change how it’s stored in the brain, explains Dr. Boyd Sherbourne, a clinical psychologist in Medford. “After a successful treatment, stress is relieved and negative beliefs reformed,” he adds.

During the therapeutic process — which has seven phases — he says the patient addresses emotionally-charged material, so they work in brief, sequential doses. “EMDR therapy uses rhythmic bilateral stimulation, such as eye movements, tones or taps. While the patient briefly focuses on the traumatic memory, they also experience bilateral stimulation and the intensity of the memory is reduced.” For example, a patient who was in a car accident will focus on that memory during the session while using bilateral stimulation — which could be auditory, visual or tactile. If using an auditory stimulus, the patient may listen to a sound shifting from their right to left ear as they focus on the trauma. Eventually, a memory that was once highly emotional can become less distressing.

Waterman explains that the same technique can also create feelings of confidence or safety once the negative mental state decreases, with the memory becoming more distant and less painful.

How EMDR can treat trauma

Mental health providers use EMDR therapy to treat a multitude of issues, including childhood trauma, domestic violence, vehicle accidents or other highly disturbing circumstances, says Waterman. “Patients undergoing EMDR therapy generally move into a meditative state, with comments indicating they are starting to feel better,” she explains. During a treatment session, she asks what memory the patient wants to address and any negative beliefs associated with that experience. She then rates their level of disturbance from 0-10. “I check what emotions and sensations are arising; then begin EMDR. The goal is to get their disturbance level down to a zero or one.”

For Sherbourne, one of the most notable aspects of EMDR therapy is that it changes people’s perception of the trauma, of themselves and of the world. “When people have trauma in their background, their perception changes and they view the world as a more dangerous place,” he says. For these people, he explains, everything becomes dangerous — especially relationships, where people can judge, reject or criticize. “One of the main things people do when they have endured a traumatic circumstance is avoid other people, situations, thoughts and memories. Society often reinforces this type of avoidance by promoting a ‘just move on’ or ‘just get over it’ philosophy. EMDR therapy helps people safely confront their traumas rather than avoid them,” he says.

However, Sherbourne notes that because patients are addressing traumatic memories, there could be disturbing things which unfold during a session. “People could find new traumatic memories they were not previously aware of, have bad dreams or nightmares, or experience extreme physiological responses, such as headaches or nausea,” he explains. To ensure a successful experience with EMDR therapy, he says it’s imperative to do your research and find a reputable provider.

Changing perceptions

Both Sherbourne and Waterman agree that EMDR therapy is an effective treatment modality that helps people cope and overcome trauma and traumatic memories. “EMDR is my favorite therapy because I believe it is a more effective and efficient treatment option than other types of therapy,” says Sherbourne.

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More to Explore

What is bilateral stimulation?

EDMR sidebar

EMDR therapy uses a technique called bilateral stimulation. Bilateral stimulation is when the left and right sides of the brain (bilateral) activate in a left-right pattern.

When you walk, cycle or run, as examples, you are giving your brain bilateral stimulation. In EMDR, the therapy gets the brain into this left-right pattern by responding to a stimulus, which could be a visual or sound cue and/or physical sensation.

For example, you might visually track a light as it moves from left to right, or a sound that plays in one ear and then the other. Another form is tapping alternately on left and right knees.

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