What is EMDR?

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) Therapy is a highly researched and effective form of therapy. Whether you are new to therapy or you have worked with a mental health professional in the past, EMDR therapy might help you resolve your past hurt and help you to live a more fulfilling and authentic life. In this blog post, Edmonton-based registered provisional psychologist, Selena Arcovio answers some frequently asked questions about this unique form of treatment. 

What is EMDR?

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a structured therapy that involves briefly focusing on a distressing memory (emotion, thought, belief, or sensation) while experiencing stimulation on both sides of the body (bilateral stimulation). The goal of EMDR is to reduce the vividness, emotional intensity, and present day impact associated with distressing experiences from the past. 

In EMDR, we view our current negative symptoms as coming from past distressing memories that may not have been processed and stored in our brain in a helpful way. 

When events in our daily life remind us of our unprocessed memories, we often experience the same emotions, thoughts, beliefs, and physical body sensations that occurred during the original distressing event. 

What is Bilateral Stimulation? 

Bilateral Stimulation involves using something you can see, hear, or feel to cross your body in a rhythmic left-right pattern. This could involve sensory tasks such as eye movements, butterfly tapping on your shoulders, or listening to sounds with headphones. Bilateral stimulation activates both sides of the brain and is believed to help facilitate processing memories and storing them in a more helpful place in the brain and body. 

Recalling a distressing memory and using bilateral stimulation at the same time has been shown to reduce the intensity and emotional charge of the memory. The research has found that this works for both highly traumatic memories and mildly negative memories. Once the memory becomes less distressing, you will be better able to think about your past without feeling overwhelmed. This often leads to feeling more present and engaged in your daily life. 

What Does Processing Mean in EMDR? 

In typical talk therapy, processing means to talk about your past experiences. In EMDR, it means creating a state of mind that allows the experiences that are causing problems in your life to be digested and stored in a helpful way in your brain and body. This means that you will keep the useful parts of your past experiences, and discard the negative emotions, beliefs, and sensations. 

Why Do Distressing Past Experiences Affect Us So Much? 

Distressing experiences are stored in our memory differently compared to more neutral or positive experiences. Not only are the facts of the experience stored in our long term memory, but the distressing emotions are stored as well. If you find yourself reminded of your past negative experiences, you may also experience some of the same emotions you had during the original distressing event. EMDR helps to reprocess the memory so the facts remain intact but the distressing emotions are no longer stored alongside them. After EMDR, many people note that they can remember the events that have happened in their past but that these events are no longer as overwhelming or bothersome in their daily life. 

How long does EMDR take to complete? 

At Holistic Healing Counselling, EMDR sessions are typically the same length as a standard individual therapy appointment (50 minutes). Depending on the concerns you want to address through EMDR and how impactful they are in your life, the number of sessions can range from 3-12 sessions. In addition, life happens so sometimes EMDR treatment will be paused for a session or two in order to address other concerns in your life.  

What is the Structure of EMDR?

There are 5 steps of EMDR treatment: 

1. History Taking - During the first phase, your therapist will ask to hear your story. They will document the important parts of your past that might be impacting how you feel in the present day. They will also review the risks and benefits of treatment and make sure EMDR is the best treatment for you. With this information, the therapist will develop a treatment plan that outlines the “target” experiences in which you will use EMDR. These experiences include situations from the past, present day situations that cause distress, and key skills or behaviors that might improve your future well-being.

2. Preparing and Exploring Coping Techniques - Sometimes difficult emotions, memories, or experiences from our past come up as we do EMDR so your therapist will make sure that you have some tools in your coping toolbox that you can use in therapy and at home. They will also explore what kind of bilateral stimulation (eye movements, tapping, etc.) feels best for you.

3. Assessment - At this point, you and your therapist will access each “target” in a controlled and standardized way. This might involve identifying the worst part of the “target”, the negative beliefs that are associated with the “target”, the emotions and body sensations associated with the “target”, and a positive belief that would be more helpful to hold on to. Your therapist might ask you to describe your experience on a scale from 1-10 or 1-7.

It’s important to be aware that sometimes it can be hard to identify a negative belief, emotion, or body sensation in the moment because intellectually you might know the negative thoughts aren’t true. However it is still helpful to focus on the negative thoughts because they are often expressions of the distressing emotions that are associated with the “target” and can lead to distress in our present day lives.

4. Desensitization and Reprocessing - During this stage, your therapist will ask you to think about elements from your roadmap while also experiencing the bilateral stimulation. This will feel a lot different than typical talk therapy. At first you might find it hard to lean into the process, but it’s best not to overthink it. Let your mind freely wander and see what comes up for you.

After each set of stimulation, your therapist may ask you to take a deep breath and notice whatever is coming to mind. Depending on what you share, your therapist will choose the focus of attention for the next set of stimulation. The repeated sets with directed focused attention will occur several times throughout the session. If things become too overwhelming or aren’t experiencing any changes, the therapist will make adjustments to get back on track, as needed.

When there is no more distress associated with the “target”, you might be asked to think of the preferred positive belief that was identified at the beginning of the session. You will focus on this positive belief until it feels true for you.

5. Looking to the Future - The last step of EMDR involves reviewing all of the work you have done together. Sometimes it might be necessary to reprocess some things you have already covered - this is completely normal. In addition, you may choose to process worries you have for the future. 

Next steps

Edmonton-based therapists, Shaheen Alarakhia, Adam Sartore, and Selena Arcovio, are all trained in EMDR and have seen successes with their clients using this unique form of therapy. Reach out to one of our therapists today and start your healing journey.

Welcome to Holistic Healing

Welcome to Holistic Healing

Meet our certified therapists, Adam, Selena, Danielle, and Shaheen. No matter what you want to work on, we have a therapist to help. Our Counsellors focus on helping you feel at ease by allowing you to feel heard and understood. By using a holistic, or whole picture approach, our trained Counsellors can help their patients live a happier, more authentic life. Our therapists offer adult counselling, couples counselling, and adolescent/teen counselling. Interested in learning more? Need to book a session? Contact Us here.


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