Counsellors Corner: What is EMDR?

What is EMDR?

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is an evidence-based treatment shown to have positive outcomes in treating: trauma, anxiety, depression, OCD, phobias, chronic pain, grief and loss, personality disorders, PTSD and other stress and trauma related issues. Discovered in 1987 by Dr. Francine Shapiro, EMDR began as a trauma treatment but since that time has grown in its application. But before we can jump into what EMDR is, we need to first expand our understanding of distress and trauma.


So, what exactly does distress mean? While there are many causes for the distress we experience in the present, distressing symptoms are what communicate we are outside our ‘window of tolerance’ (where things feel okay). When we are hyper-aroused (fancy word for too much arousal) we may feel like we are anxious, like we want to run away, yell or hit, have reoccurring and/or intrusive thoughts or feel restless and agitated. When we are hypo-aroused (another fancy word, think opposite of hyper) we may feel frozen, not present, or numb, our thoughts may seem disinterested, or we may be lacking energy. These symptoms can feel overwhelming, our natural tendency is to avoid experiencing those reactions in the future, so we develop our own coping strategies. This may look like avoiding certain social activities or physical contact, people pleasing tendencies, not feeling like we can ask for what we need from a partner, overplanning and scheduling with no room for flexibility, etc. Many people have the idea that trauma is reserved for war or large-scale life changing events. We know now there are many life events that can be experienced as distressing or traumatic.


“Trauma by definition is unbearable…It takes tremendous energy to keep functioning while carrying the memory of terror…trauma is not just an event that took place sometime in the past; it is also the impact left by the experience on mind, brain and body…” (Bessel Van Der Kolk – The Body Keeps the Score)


Our idea of trauma is shifting. Traumatic events affect each person uniquely. Not everyone will meet the threshold for a diagnosis of PTSD, but that does not mean they haven’t experienced something distressing or traumatic. EMDR has the ability to treat anything a client defines as traumatic, distressing, or anxiety provoking. That may be due to the death of a loved one or family pet, an abusive relationship, a car accident, a sexual assault, occupational stress, or adverse childhood experiences.


“If we understand that traumatized children and adults get stuck in fight/flight or in chronic shut-down, how do we help them to deactivate these defensive maneuvers that once ensured their survival?” (Bessel Van Der Kolk – The Body Keeps the Score)


You may be asking, well that’s nice information but how does EMDR help with that? EMDR can facilitate processing unresolved distressing memories. Not only is it evidence based, perhaps one of the most attractive elements of EMDR might be the lack of talking about the distressing event. We have learnt that we cannot talk ourselves out of trauma. Therefore, instead of talking in detail about the memory, EMDR has the client hold the distressing memory in their focus, while also experiencing something called dual attention bilateral stimulation in the form of alternating: eye movements, handheld buzzers, body tapping, audio tones or lights. Through this desensitization process an adaptive state is created, and we allow the brain to resume its natural healing process. What this really means is, distressing memories are ‘chewed up and spit out’, allowing us to store the memory in a healthier way and a reduction in distressing symptoms in the present. This allows for a return to our window of tolerance, much quicker than what is typically achieved through talk therapy sessions alone. This challenges the idea that distress and trauma take years and years to heal from.


So, whether you are new to therapy or feel like you have tried every type of therapy out there and are still struggling with distressing symptoms, EMDR may be something to consider. If you decide EMDR is something you would like to try, it is important to find an EMDR professionally trained Counsellor to determine if EMDR is an appropriate fit for you. To learn more about the process or research, please visit the websites below:


 Kirsten Denninger, MSW, RSW, EMDR Therapist, RYT-200