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  • Writer's pictureBailey Wilkinson, MA, LCMHC

What Is EMDR?

EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) is a type of therapy most often recommended for people who have experienced some form of trauma in their lives. However, a diagnosis of PTSD or even experiencing something traumatic is not a prerequisite to benefit from EMDR since it has been shown to be helpful for a variety of mental health disorders. Usually when EMDR is recommended to a client, they have lots of follow up questions- which is understandable because even the name is a mouthful!

So, what is EMDR? Like other forms of therapy, a main goal of EMDR is to help you process past experiences that are impacting you presently, and help you create more adaptive and helpful beliefs about yourself. One thing that differentiates EMDR from other forms of therapy is the use of bilateral stimulation. Bilateral stimulation can take the form of rapid eye movements, tapping, audio or tactile stimulation- just depending on the preference of the client.

The term ‘bilateral stimulation’ usually leads to some raised eyebrows from the client since it’s not a term we use in our daily lives. This is what the “Eye Movement” part of EMDR is referring to. During the processing phase of EMDR, the counselor will lead the client in rapidly moving their eyes from side to side by watching the counselor’s hand move back and forth.

And at this point in the explanation of EMDR, the question of “Is this hypnosis?” is usually brought up. No, this is not hypnosis! Clients are fully aware of the present moment and can stop the process at any time if they’d like. The eye movements in EMDR are mimicking the eye movements that occur during REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. During this stage of sleep the brain is very active and REM sleep is thought to help consolidate memories. The rapid eye movements of EMDR are tapping into our brain’s natural ability to process information and experiences.

Bilateral stimulation does not have to occur in the form of rapid eye movements. It can also occur by the counselor alternately tapping the client's hands or knees (with permission, of course!), by the client tapping their own shoulders, or through audio stimulation, such as putting in headphones and listening to a sound that alternates between the left and right ear.

Through the process of EMDR, a client identifies the negative, unhelpful beliefs they are holding that are impacting their daily lives. Typically, these beliefs were created by their past experiences. So, by addressing those past experiences in conjunction with the negative beliefs with the use of bilateral stimulation, a client is able to move past the emotional block that is often keeping them stuck in those unhelpful beliefs. This allows the client to then identify a new, adaptive and helpful belief that they can replace the old belief with. Modifying or replacing negative beliefs is a goal of most types of therapy, but the bilateral stimulation part of EMDR is thought to help move this process along a little more quickly.

While the science behind why and how EMDR works can be complicated, a client can rest assured knowing that their counselor has been trained in EMDR and is fully capable of walking the client through the process and answering any questions they may have.

If you would like more information on EMDR, please reach out to one of our EMDR trained counselors: Joy Tanner, April Thompson, Bailey Wilkinson, Harper O’Neill, Hannah Whisler, or Abby Anspach.

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