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What is EMDR?

Over the past few years EMDR, which stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, has become somewhat of a buzz word in the world of psychotherapy. But what is EMDR and what is it used for? Here is a description of what EMDR is and some frequently asked questions about it:


How does EMDR work?


EMDR is based on the premise that performing bilateral stimulation while processing distressing incidents leads to a reduction in the intensity of emotions related to these incidents. Bilateral stimulation can be performed in various forms, such as, eye movements from right to left or vice versa, alternating sounds, or alternating tactile stimulation.


There are various theories that support the effectiveness of EMDR. One theory suggests that bilateral eye movements mimic the eye movements that we perform during REM sleep. REM (Rapid Eye Movement) is a stage of sleep where information processing occurs. Once information is processed it gets consolidated into long-term memory. Therefore, by activating our information processing system we have the ability to re-process our experiences in ways that are more adaptive or useful.


Later it was found that bilateral stimulation of various forms also led to reduction of distressing emotions. These could be tapping your arms alternating between right and left, tapping your knees again between right and left, feeling a vibration back and forth from right hand to left, etc. Performing these actions while processing through disturbing incidents could reduce distress.


What does an EMDR session look like?


This can vary from session to session as there are several stages to EMDR therapy. In the beginning, sessions may focus on information gathering and learning emotion regulation strategies. Similar to other forms of therapy, it is important to have a good understanding of the how, what, when and why. We want to know what brought you to therapy and what you wish to achieve from it. We also want you to learn how to cope with painful emotions quickly if they happen to arise during your appointment. Some examples of emotional regulation strategies are deep breathing, visualizing your peaceful place, acupressure, etc.


During subsequent sessions, we may determine the string of experiences you have had throughout your lifetime that share similarities to your presenting concern. The assumption is that sometimes our painful experiences build on top of each other to create a mountain that becomes hard to manage. In order to feel complete relief, the entire mountain must be addressed. Whether or not we work on the entire mountain will depend of how many sessions you’re willing and able to have and whether you wish to tackle the incidents that created the mountain. It’s ok if you’re not ready or able to go that far. We can also feel relief by tackling some layers of the mountain.


What will I gain from EMDR?


The goal in treatment is to be able to perceive your past, present and future life experiences more adaptively and through a lens that is more accurate. When we experience disturbing events, sometimes the messages that get internalized aren’t useful or even true. Here is an example:


You get into a car accident during a snow storm. You’re so shaken up because your car is totalled and the driver you collided with has sustained some injuries. You think to yourself, “I’m such an idiot, I should have been more careful. It’s my fault they’re hurt.” Our brain tends to look for information that’s consistent with what we believe is true, as such, we might add more “files” over the years into the “I’m an idiot that hurts people” folder.  EMDR can help to integrate more positive and accurate beliefs into experiences like this one so that when you think back to it in the future you think to yourself, “I care about people’s wellbeing. I do the best that I can, and I can accept appropriate responsibility.”


What conditions can EMDR treat?


EMDR can be useful for just about any condition as it targets distressing emotions in general. It is most commonly used to treat Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and other trauma-related conditions; however, it can also be useful with anxiety, depression, anger, addictions, panic, chronic pain, and grief.


If you’ve had some painful experiences in your life and you find yourself trapped behind the conflict between one part of you that says, “I know I’m lovable, worthy, competent, etc.” vs another part that says the opposite, EMDR could be useful for you. It can be useful to address past traumas, present stressors, as well as future worries, such as, “I won’t be able to cope with losing my job.” Any painful emotions really, be it in the past, present or future.



If you’re interested in EMDR go ahead and book a consultation with me or one of Living Well’s other EMDR therapists.  We would be happy to assist you.



Shezlina Haji, MA, has extensive experience in the area of emotional regulation, personal growth, plus many more. For more information on Shezlina and her work, click here to link to her full bio page.