Dr. Maria D. Reyes
EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. It is a type of treatment for trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). During EMDR therapy sessions, EMDR therapists will ask you to think of a disturbing event while they move their fingers back and forth in front of your face and ask you to follow these movements with your eyes. Some therapists use hand or toe-tapping or musical notes instead of finger movements.
Internal associations arise and you begin to process the memory and disturbing feelings. Proponents of EMDR claim that the meaning of painful events is changed on an emotional level. For example, a victim of sexual assault moves from feeling horror and self-disgust to holding firm to the belief that, “I survived it and I am strong.”
Psychologist Francine Shapiro developed the EMDR technique in 1989, after noticing that her negative emotions eased as her eyes flicked from side to side while walking through the woods one day. She later found the same to be true in patients.
The idea behind EMDR is that recalling distressing events is often less emotionally upsetting when your attention is diverted. Over time, this technique can lessen the impact that the memories have on you.
Who is it for?
EMDR has proven to be the most effective in treating people with traumatic memories or who have PTSD, especially for those who find it difficult to talk about their past experiences. Some therapists are beginning to use EMDR to help treat other mental conditions like anxiety, depression, and panic disorders, though its effectiveness for these conditions is still unproven.
Although EMDR therapy is considered to be safe, with fewer side effects than those of prescription medications, you may initially experience heightened awareness during and after a session, which may bring about light-headedness or result in vivid dreams.
It may be emotionally stressful to move through the course of treatment, but this should lessen as you progress through the phases. If you do decide to pursue EMDR, make sure you use a licensed therapist.
What does it entail?
EMDR therapy consists of eight phases that take place over roughly twelve sessions. The therapy focuses on disturbing memories and related events from the past then moves to current stressful situations. It looks at developing the skills and attitudes needed for positive future responses to those trigger situations.
Phase 1: In the first phase, both client and therapist together identify distressing memories and situations and explore the development of relevant skills and behaviors that will be needed by the client in future situations. The length of treatment depends on the number of traumas and the age of PTSD onset.
Phase 2: In the second phase, the therapist gives the client several ways to cope with emotional distress, for example, through stress reduction techniques.
Phases 3-6: In these phases, the client identifies a vivid visual image related to the memory, a negative belief about self, and the emotional and bodily response to these. The client also identifies a positive belief, which the therapist helps the client to rate as well as the intensity of the negative belief.
The client is then asked to focus on the image, negative thought, and body sensations while at the same time engaging in EMDR processing using sets of bilateral stimulation (eye movements, taps, or tones). After each set, the client is asked to be aware of whatever thought, feeling, image, memory, or sensation comes to mind.
When the client reports no distress related to the targeted memory, he or she is asked to think of the positive belief that was identified at the beginning of the session. The client may adjust the positive belief if necessary and then focus on it during the next set of distressing events.
Phase 7: This is the closure phase, where the therapist asks the client to keep a week’s record of any related thoughts or experiences that may arise. This helps to remind the client of the stress reduction techniques of Phase 2.
Phase 8: The final phase checks the progress made.
Is EMDR therapy effective?
Several independent and controlled studies have shown that EMDR therapy is an effective treatment for PTSD. It is recognized by the American Psychiatric Association, the World Health Organization, and the Department of Defense, and the Department of Veterans Affairs highly recommend EMDR in the treatment of PTSD.
Some studies have also found evidence that EMDR therapy is not only effective in the short term but that its effects can be maintained over the long term. The concern amongst some mental health professionals, however, is that most of the studies claiming the benefits of EMDR have been based on small sample sizes, and thus more research is needed to confirm its effectiveness.
The advantage of the therapy is the apparent speed of healing, compared to the traditional psychotherapy route which can take years to make a difference. The therapy works because the brain’s information processing system naturally moves toward mental health; if the system is blocked or imbalanced by the impact of a disturbing event, healing can only resume after the block is removed.
EMDR therapists thus help clients to “activate their natural healing processes” using the detailed protocols and procedures learned in EMDR therapy training sessions. Clients can finish EMDR therapy feeling empowered by the very experiences that once debased them, without the client having to spend hours and hours talking in detail or doing homework as in other therapies.
How does EMDR fit in with Christian counseling?
While all of this sounds somewhat strange and yet promising, Christians need to think carefully through this (and any) therapy from a biblical perspective. Ed Welch, a counselor and faculty member at the Christian Counseling and Education Foundation (CCEF) with a Ph.D. in Counseling (Neuropsychology) says this about EMDR: “Suffering can never be reduced to mere physiological events that can be reprogrammed.
Instead, suffering is connected to the meaning we ascribe to the events.” He goes on to add: “The more a therapy can be reduced to a series of steps, and the more it invokes a neurological reconfiguring, the more it assumes a mechanistic view of people and has lost any remnants of a soul. (By soul I mean that we live before God and, as a result, we live with basic questions about who we are, why we live, and how we live).”
But if it works, does it matter if it is based on a mechanistic view of people? EMDR is neither illegal nor immoral and has helped some people. Can’t Christians still use it?
There may not be a solid biblical argument against it but be wary of the “quick fix” that bypasses biblical ways of viewing your experience and does not treat you as a whole (physical-emotional-spiritual) person. You are not merely a biological robot. “Reprogramming” yourself through distraction and positive self-talk – if this is even possible – will not ultimately satisfy the deep yearning of your heart for justice or forgiveness or hope.
If you are stuck in or debilitated by painful events of the past, Christian counseling can help you uncover what meaning you have attached to them. A good biblical counselor will ask if you believe the Lord is in your suffering, discern whether your knowledge of God has become un-anchored from biblical truth, and help you attach true meaning to your past – so that your wounds can be transformed, and you can move forward in confidence and hope.
While EMDR may be effective to a point, why not go for the absolute best treatment available – that which is offered through our Lord Jesus, a “man of sorrows, familiar with suffering” who died to make us whole again?
“Heart in Hand”, Courtesy of Joseph Frank, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Multiple Exposure”, Courtesy of Ilona Panych, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Talk to the Hand”, Courtesy of Ilona Panych, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Crying Woman”, Courtesy of Ellieelien, Unsplash.com, CC0 License
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