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What to Expect From EMDR Therapy for Processing Trauma


Have you ever watched a therapy session on a TV drama that involved blinking lights, moving your head from side to side or vibrating paddles in your hands? If you have, you more than likely were watching a simulated EMDR therapy session. This unique form of therapy stands for “eye movement desensitization and reprocessing.” Let’s break that down:

The theory behind EMDR therapy is, by providing an external stimulus (eye movement) while simultaneously processing a traumatic memory, we can fully process the trauma and remove the emotional distress linked to that memory. The eye movement stimulation can be achieved in multiple different ways. When I had this form of treatment, I held a small paddle in each hand that vibrated in a pattern from right to left continuously and at different speeds. My therapist would speed up the pattern to allow for more intense processing and slow it down to relax my mind and ease me back down. It can also be achieved with blinking lights that direct the eyes back and forth laterally or even simply tracking the therapist’s hand in the same way.

But what really happens in an EMDR therapy session? Well, there are several important steps involved. Initially, you and your therapist will go through your history and create a timeline to follow. You may have several memories you want to target or even just one, but they are processed one at a time and done in chronological order. Once you know what you want to work on, you will create your toolbox. The toolbox will be filled with several different methods to help you deal with the emotions that may be unleashed during processing. Now, don’t let this intimidate you — you are guided along gently and carefully by your therapist, but you are always in control. You are not being hypnotized! You may feel a wide array of emotions while processing, and this is a good thing because that means you have removed the mental blocks and it’s working! You have created a safe space for your mind to heal itself.

OK, I’ve gotten a little ahead of myself. Let’s backtrack: After you put together your toolbox, you and your therapist will go through each memory you want to target one by one. For each of them, she will ask you to identify four things:

1. An image in your mind that relates to that memory.

2. The negative beliefs about yourself that you associate with that memory.

3. To describe how that memory makes you feel — both emotionally and physically.

4. And lastly, what positive belief about yourself you would rather have associated with that memory.

Now, you’re ready to work! In order to fully benefit from this form of therapy, you have to be willing to open your mind. What this means is you have to trust that wherever your mind is taking you is where you’re supposed to be. Unlike a typical therapy session, your therapist isn’t interpreting what you’re saying and providing direct feedback — you are doing the majority of the work internally by following your own stream of consciousness. Your therapist will simply ask you to notice whatever spontaneously happens and follow it from there. It’s actually pretty remarkable.

It can be intimidating to let your mind be free — believe me. At first, it was hard for me to trust the process, but once I did, my healing began. I was self-conscious and worried I was “doing it wrong,” or that what I was saying was “stupid” or nonsensical. On the contrary — you can’t do it wrong! You and your therapist will keep processing that memory, using your tools and insights to get to a point where that memory doesn’t trigger emotional distress anymore. When that happens, you have completely processed that trauma and can move on. This is a feeling of accomplishment I could never truly put into words. Let’s just say it’s extraordinarily empowering.

If you’re interested in learning more about EMDR therapy, check out this website.

Photo by @invent on Unsplash