EMDR is a form of psychotherapy developed by a psychologist named Francine Shapiro in 1987. The story goes that during a walk around a lake Dr. Shapiro noticed that moving her eyes quickly across her field of vision generated a combination of alertness and relaxation. She experimented with this phenomenon and applied it to her psychotherapy work to surprising and marvelous effect.
For an account of the client’s experience before, during, and after EMDR, I recommend Carol E. Miller’s 2016 book: Every Moment of a Fall: A Memoir of Recovery through EMDR Therapy.
EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. During an EMDR session the therapist leads you through sets of eye movements while you review painful memories. Through eye movements you become less sensitive to (desensitized from) the difficult feelings connected to these memories. Being less sensitive means you can allow yourself to look in more detail at the events which traumatized you. “Reprocessing” in EMDR refers to updating certain ideas about yourself that began with the painful incident and were then applied to all sorts of life experiences afterwards.
What Happens in an EMDR Session?
An EMDR session is quite structured with a beginning, a middle, and an end. We begin with your recent experience that has brought you into therapy. Most people seek therapy because of strong emotions they are experiencing now. We begin with these experiences and I ask when you first had these strong feelings. Sometimes they began with a single painful incident. Other times it takes more work to trace the starting point. We take the target memory (where the feelings started) and explore what negative thoughts about yourself are connected to it.
The middle section of an EMDR session provides proof that people truly heal themselves and therapists merely guide the process. Your starting point will be the target memory. From there, I will guide you through a series of eye movements. These last typically less than 30 seconds and are not difficult. After the eye movements I will ask you what you’re noticing or thinking about now. You may notice an emotion or body sensation. You may recall other experiences which seem completely unrelated. Whatever comes to mind, you report about it briefly and then move on to another set of eye movements. During this middle section it helps to imagine that you’re on a train ride. You leave the station at the starting point – your target memory. You look out the window occasionally to notice what’s going on out there and let me know what you’re noticing.
One thing about trains is that sometimes you find yourself in a tunnel, which may feel dark and unpleasant. During sessions, people sometimes find themselves feeling temporarily worse than when they started. A difficult memory may spontaneously emerge. Or a strong feeling may seem overwhelming. This is a good time to remember the train analogy (and I will remind you). Because if you’re on a train and in a tunnel, you don’t stop. You move through the tunnel to the other side where safety lies. This can happen very quickly in EMDR. And you’ll have my support encouraging you to hang in there.
At some point, what you notice out the window will be less difficult and painful. Then the final phase of an EMDR session begins. I will ask you to consider the original memory along with a new way of thinking about yourself or the world. This new way of thinking is strengthened with more eye movements.
All three phases of an EMDR session can sometimes be accomplished in one 90 minute session. More typically, however, it takes an entire session to target a memory. The train ride is put off until a later session. Sometimes, as well, the train ride takes more than one session, in which case I will teach you strategies to manage the strong emotions that might still be active until next time.
On days you have an EMDR session you should take certain precautions. After you leave the office your mind will continue to consider the material you covered. Be careful if you are driving. Bring your attention to the road. You can also expect interesting dreams that night. Because we are focusing on some of the most difficult moments in your life you will probably find the period between sessions emotional. Be good to yourself. You are doing difficult and very rewarding work.