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How EMDR Actually Works! – A Sample Session

EMDR Session – How Does It Really Work?

Adjust your perspective. Add wisdom. Create a positive learning state of mind.

by Sandy Booth, LPC 

Watch/Read our Vlog to view a sample counseling session.

In our last blog, we discussed that EMDR is an extensively researched form of therapy. It uses Bilateral Stimulation (BLS) to address the physiological storage of memory and how it informs experience.

Whew! To simplify, the memory is reprocessed, removing the unhelpful response (e.g., intense anger or quick startle) that was initially created by the intense emotional arousal.  The intention is to assist a person in reprocessing a trauma so the brain is no longer reacting as if it is still in danger. When we experience high levels of distressing emotion, our logical brain “goes offline” and all of our energy goes toward the emotional brain.

Our logical brain allows for perspective taking and rational thought (“the wisdom to know the difference”).  If a distressing memory remains stored in the emotion center of the brain, each time the negative memory is activated, emotions are triggered shutting down the logical brain.  “Reprocessing” does not mean talking about a traumatic event.  By setting up a positive learning state, what is useful to you from an experience will be learned. A new perspective will be used to guide you in positive ways in the future.  EMDR incorporates the use of Bilateral Stimulation (BLS), all of our senses, body awareness and breath.  As a result, the whole brain is activated, which promotes the connections necessary for healing and shifts in how memories are stored.

What is BLS during an EMDR Session?

BLS is utilized throughout an EMDR session. Bilateral stimulation (BLS) is stimuli (visual, auditory or tactile) which occurs in a left to right rhythmic pattern.  Visual BLS may be watching a light move from left to right.  Auditory BLS could involve listening to a tone that alternates from left ear to right ear.  Tactile BLS may be feeling a slight vibration in the left hand and then feeling the same vibration in the right hand.  The vibration feels much like a cell phone on vibrate.emdr session - new directions counseling

“The Past Becomes the Present.”

Imagine there are bridges between different parts of our brains.  When trauma happens, much like our Pittsburgh bridges backing up with traffic, it causes a backup on the connections between the different parts of our brains.  BLS strengthens and widens the bridge to allow for passing through of the memory from the emotional brain to the logical brain. It accelerates the process by allowing the connections to happen more quickly to shift the memory.  When we go through a traumatic experience, the amygdala and other parts of emotion brain signal danger.  If the memory gets stuck here, the panic button never gets reset fully (the past becomes the present).  These parts of the brain do not have a sense of time so we can’t rationalize that the trauma is no longer happening.

“The client will NOT need to talk about the distressing event.”

There are eight phases to EMDR therapy.  EMDR trained therapists must adhere to strict protocol which is embedded into these eight phases.  The client will not need to talk about the distressing event but will be supported while they are challenged to feel it.  The client has full control to stop the therapist at any point if needed.  As part of the protocol, the therapist ensures the client first has the necessary coping skills.  This may take a few sessions to complete as it is vital the client has a full toolbox to manage anything that may come up.  This allows for fluidity in thought, emotion and sensation for the subsequent phases of treatment.  The goal of this phase is to develop a safe and authentic environment to allow for healing to take place.

Once EMDR therapy has been chosen to address present day challenges and emotional pain, the client and therapist will work together to identify a linked distressing event.  A client will then be invited to focus on an upsetting image, a negative belief about their self, and body sensations related to this event.  A negative belief may be “I am not safe” or “I am not worthy”.  Next, the therapist will assist a client in identifying a chosen positive belief that they would like to believe instead.  In the next phase, while the client focuses on the distressing material, the therapist will begin sets of Bilateral Stimulation. The client will be invited to notice whatever comes up after each set.  Treatment will move to the next phase, once the client starts to experience significant decreases in levels of emotional pain, allowing for movement toward positive beliefs and perspectives surrounding the distressing event.  “Meaning making” from the painful event arises from within the client’s own insights.

The amount of time spent on each phase and the completion of treatment depends upon what the client wishes to achieve coupled with the experiences that the client comes to treatment with.

“I no longer feel stuck in the past”

Clients leave a full course of EMDR therapy feeling empowered by the very experiences that once weakened them. With EMDR sessions, client’s wounds have not just closed, they have transformed their lives to one’s worth living.

Read the following compilation of personal recounts from clients who have completed EMDR therapy:

  • “I no longer feel stuck in the past.  I saw my repeated cycles and didn’t know how to get unstuck from them.  I felt powerless to make changes.  Now I recognize them crystal clear and I have the freedom to make choices”.
  • “I didn’t believe in myself; I didn’t trust myself; I didn’t love myself.  Now I understand why I felt that way but it no longer has a hold on me.  I have learned from my past and know things were not my fault.  It doesn’t haunt me anymore.”
  • “I knew this wave of emotion was connected to something from years ago but I couldn’t get past it no matter what I tried.  I didn’t want to feel so much dread but I didn’t know how to move past it.  I needed a solution for something that kept happening.  With EMDR, I got to rewrite things.  It didn’t change the story of what happened but it changed how I felt about it which gave me the power to change how I felt about myself”.
  • “It’s moving from surviving to living”.

Call us today to see if EMDR treatment is right for you – call 724.934.3905