Mental Health
What Is EMDR Therapy And How Can It Help You?

What Is EMDR Therapy And How Can It Help You?

7 min read


Zach Shapiro

In this week’s post, NYC therapist Zach Shapiro helps us to better understand all things EMDR Therapy — what it is, how it works, and how he has seen it be helpful in his own personal experience and for clients he has worked with.

It’s always interesting for me to note, even after 4 years of seeing the healing impact EMDR therapy has had on so many of my clients, how I still feel slightly self conscious when presenting the idea of this therapy to a client who has not heard of it.

I imagine what bemused faces this client will make when I tell them that for this therapy to work, they will be holding circle-shaped vibrating buzzers in each palm, which will buzz back and forth to create bilateral stimulation, the primary vehicle for healing within EMDR.

I wonder if this client will think I am some sort of witch doctor when I tell them about the EMDR protocol and explain that EMDR clears out the associative channel where traumatic or distressing memories linger, so with my support they will be re-experiencing parts of these memories in therapy in order to lessen or eliminate their impact, which will lead to healing.

Will this client stop trusting me when I present to them this therapy they have not heard of and that might initially seem slightly unorthodox?

I notice this, take a deep breath, and an awareness sets in.  Somewhere in my mind I realize how much this therapy has helped clients, ranging from those with crippling PTSD and panic attacks, to others struggling with anxieties like public speaking and test anxiety. I gently quiet that doubting voice in my head and trust a therapy that I know works.

It is no stretch for me to assume that my anticipation of receiving confused and doubtful looks from clients when presenting them with the idea of EMDR probably has a lot to do with the confused and doubtful look I gave my therapist in college after she first suggested this therapy to me. Immediately, in the back of my mind, I was thinking of the best ways to gently explain to her that this therapy was not for me. Ultimately, though, I trusted her enough to give it a shot. I am very happy I did.

After a few sessions of EMDR,  I discovered that my usual triggers for stress and anxiety had lost their same power. Things that had previously created a significant impact within my body and mind, like the anger I often felt at myself for a making a mistake or the shame I felt about memories of when I let a friend or romantic partner down, began to have less power. Suddenly I had more space from angry feelings towards myself and less anxiety around making a mistake. I was able to self soothe in a way I had struggled to in the past.

When I decided to become a therapist, it almost felt like a duty for me to learn EMDR as a clinician.

What is EMDR?

The acronym EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing. It is a type of therapy aimed at alleviating emotional and physical distress resulting from traumatic or distressing experiences.

What EMDR essentially posits is that when a particular traumatic or stressful event occurs, the distress created from this event can be so overwhelming that the mind and body are not able to naturally heal. Thus, the memory and the negative cognitions and bodily sensations attached to the experience of the traumatic or distressing event remain unprocessed.

One example: if someone who was physically abused as child by a specific person saw this same person as an adult, it is likely they would be triggered and flooded with various feelings, thoughts and sensations from the original trauma. If this trauma had not been treated in the interim, all of the traumatic affect will have not been processed, and therefore the feelings aroused in the present will be similar to those experienced during the actual occurrence of the trauma.

One of the core beliefs of EMDR is that the mind, like the body, has the essential capacity to heal. On, this belief is described as such; “When you cut your hand your body works to close the wound. If a foreign object or repeated injury irritates the wound, it festers and causes pain. Once the block is removed, healing resumes.”  However, in order for this block to be removed and the healing to occur, the lingering memory must be fully processed and digested.

How does healing occur?

The first thing I like to do in an EMDR session is something called resourcing. This is when the client is encouraged to identify various emotional aids that will be there for them throughout the therapeutic process.

I encourage clients to think of a safe place, a loving figure within their life, a protective figure within their life and a wise figure within their life. If the client struggles to come up with examples from their own life, they can choose people they have never met or even characters from books, tv or movies who represent positive internal feelings.  There has been a long eclectic list of imaginary characters summoned by clients for protection throughout my time of resourcing. I would say, though, that Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings characters have been summoned the most frequently to provide support for clients in need.

Once resources are decided upon, I give the client time to focus on each resource, while I create the bilateral stimulation. A machine is used to create the bilateral stimulation.  Clients hold circular vibrators in their hands that vibrate one at a time, back and forth.  While this bilateral stimulation occurs, the mind and body are able to access and integrate the emotional aids they identified through resourcing.  Eventually, this is also the mechanism through which the mind and body access the traumatic or distressing memory.

Once resourcing is completed, I will collaborate with clients to figure out specific memories and emotional themes they want to work through. Once specific memories are targeted, we begin the process.

One thing I always make sure to be extremely clear about is that the client has control over the process. EMDR requires clients to essentially re-experience painful memories that elicit a lot of raw emotion. It is of the utmost importance that each client feels completely safe in the process and that if a client feels overwhelmed, the process can be stopped or a resource can be summoned and utilized.

Once the memory is targeted, I ask the client to visualize a moment within their memory that they have significant emotional affect towards. I then ask what emotions they are feeling when this memory is brought forth. Then what they notice in their body. Then what belief about themselves this memory creates. I encourage clients to state a core belief that begins with an “I” statement. The ones I hear the most when I ask what clients believe about themselves in relation to the distressing memory are: “I am to blame for what happened,” “I am bad,” “I do not deserve love.”

Once the emotions, the bodily sensations, and core cognitive beliefs are all accessed, I encourage the client to just notice, or follow along with, the thoughts and feelings that come up when the machine turns on.

The client then starts to experience the specific memory and all the cognitive and physical sensations that go along with this memory.  Often, during the process of noticing the targeted memory, other memories associated with the targeted memory may be experienced. As the process continues, I stop the machine at certain intervals and ask the client to return to the original targeted memory. Suddenly something pretty incredible happens. Usually when I ask clients what emotions they are now feeling the emotional affect has decreased.  As the process continues, physical sensation starts to become reduced as well.

Once the emotions and physical sensations have dramatically decreased, I will ask the client what their core belief is now when they think of the initial distressing memory. Usually, after a few EMDR sessions, or sometimes even after one session, the core memory will have changed into something filled with compassion and understanding.  

For people who have been victims of abuse, often, a core belief will change from “It’s my fault this horrible thing happened” to, “There was nothing I could do about it; I was just a kid.”  Many times I have observed those who suffer from anxiety have a core belief go from, “If I don’t control my anxiety, something terrible will happen” to, “It’s just anxiety. It will not destroy me.”

EMDR robs traumatic memories of their power.

EMDR treatment robs traumatic memories of emotional, physical, and cognitive power and strength, allowing the client to self soothe much more effectively.  This makes it much easier for an individual to self soothe when anxiety or distress is aroused.  As various lingering distressing memories are processed and digested, suddenly a memory, or a group of memories, that was once a source of fear, shame, self loathing, blame, helplessness, and anxiety, becomes something that has lost much of its power to hurt.

One thing I have learned over the years is that EMDR is not for everyone. EMDR cuts through emotional defenses very quickly in a way some clients don’t always feel comfortable with. In healing the pain of the memory, a client is asked to experience some of that pain again and for some a slower less directly intense therapy is more comfortable.

However, for those who have chosen to try EMDR, I am still consistently surprised and grateful for how much individual healing it has the power to facilitate.

Thank you, Zach, for sharing your perspective and helping us to learn more of the ins and outs of EMDR Therapy and how it can be helpful in healing.

Other thoughts, questions, or feedback? We'd love to hear from you. Reach our team any time at [email protected] or follow us on social @findmywellbeing.

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About the author

Meet today's guest blogger, Zach Shapiro. Zach is a wonderful therapist in the My Wellbeing network, a talented writer, and a paragon of compassion and empathy. The therapy Zach provides focuses on creating a safe, supportive and non-judgmental therapeutic space, devoted to helping each individual gain understanding and compassion for themselves. He has extensive experience dealing with issues including major depression, anxiety, relationship difficulties, bipolar disorder and addiction. His specialty is in trauma work and he has been trained in EMDR Therapy. In this piece, Zach reflects on his years of work as a therapist and personal experience with vulnerability and what he calls emotional armor. We hope that it invites your own reflection. If you have any questions for Zach or want to learn more about his work, you can reach out to him at [email protected].

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