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Therapy Approaches Part II: Delving into EMDR Therapy

What has dreaming to do with EMDR therapy?

A long day has passed and we are finally able to rest, succumbing to sleep for a few hours. Yet, our brains are still hard at work. When we dream, we enter REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. During REM sleep, the brain undergoes a process which allows your brain to process and categorize your day’s events and stow them away in your memory and allowing you to retrieve these memories and use this information at a later day. The psychotherapy approach called EMDR (eye movement desensitization reprocessing) functions on a process similar to REM sleep which is what we will be exploring here today.

EMDR Therapy

How did it all start?

In 1987, psychologist Francine Shapiro had been pondering over disturbing thoughts when she decided to go for a walk in the nearby woods. As she walked, she realized that her anxiety was slowly seeping away as she observed the nature that surrounded her. It was not long before she discovered that it was the back and forth movement of her eyes as she looked around while walking that was the reason for the lifting of her spirits. As she had a private practice, Shapiro modified and tried this procedure on a few of her patients, finding that they too had felt more positive as a result. Hence, this was the beginning of EMDR.

Who might benefit from EMDR treatment?

In a nutshell, EMDR helps people to cope with past traumatic memories by dissipating the emotional effects of these memories and install more positive thoughts or emotions around this memory. Let’s take this analogy as an example. When hurt physically, your body works to close and heal said wounds. Yet, if a foreign object continuous to irritate and re-injure the wound, it will continue to bleed and hurt. Once the object has been cleansed from the wound, the natural process of healing will resume in due time. Much like this, traumatic memories can leave emotional and psychological wounds, which can lead to disorders such as PTSD where such memories continue to cause distress. In this way, EMDR can help to unblock any stagnant emotions or memories, your brain can be reprogrammed and the memories can be reprocessed into help alleviate the distress.

How does EMDR exactly work and what to expect?

EMDR works with the following eight phases:

  1. Recording your history of traumatic or painful experiences as well as current factors of distress.
  2. Your therapist will help you to learn and practice various techniques to deal with stress, anxiety or distress as a result of your traumatic memories in preparation for the EMDR sessions themselves.
  3. Phase 3 – 6: Within these phases, a target memory of the experience is identified and processed through undergoing the EMDR procedure. Here, you will be asked to describe, identify or picture the following:
    1. A visual image that represents or relates to the targeted memory
    2. Physical and emotional feelings as a result
    3. Negative and positive beliefs about oneself as a result of this memory
    4. Rating the truthfulness of these beliefs
What is the EXACT procedure of EMDR intervention?

The therapist utilizes bilateral movement, a fancy word for left and right movement by allowing the patient to track their finger that is moving from side to side with their eyes. As mentioned,  works by simulating the eye movement that occurs during natural REM (rapid eye movement) sleep which allows one to process their memories of their day or recent past. In this case, it stimulates the brain to reprocess the traumatic memory and in turn densisitize this memory, in order words, allowing the emotional effects of this memory to dissipate as mentioned. Once desensitized, the therapist can guide one to think of the aforementioned positive thoughts that can be associated with this memory or to bring in any positive resources within this memory.

  1. Phase for closure: you and your therapist will discuss the progress and will ask the client to keep a log during the week to document any related material that may come up. The client will be also remined of self-calming activities.
  2. In your last session, you and your therapist will talk about your progress as based on the treatment goals and whether or not they have been met along with other points such as other targets that may need to be worked on through EMDR and ways to cope with the current or future as a way to ensure that the positive change continues on into the future.

To sum up:

I hope this article made clear that EMDR is NOT an alternative “hocus pocus” approach, but an evidence-based therapy approach. With this, EMDR not only helps one to have a less negative or traumatic association with this memory, it also helps one to feel more in control when remembering this past traumatic experience.

If you think that EMDR therapy may be suitable for you or anyone around you, please don’t hesitate to contact Dr. Julia A. Andre or a local therapist in your area for more information and advice.

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2-3/F, The Loop
33 Wellington Street,
Central, Hong Kong