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When Talk Isn’t Enough: Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy


Dr. Francine Shapiro’s Discovery


While on a walk in 1987, Dr. Francine Shapiro noticed that her eyes moved rapidly when she experienced distressing thoughts and emotions, and that after the eye movements, the negative thoughts and emotions improved. She was on her way to discovering what is now a widely used, incredibly effective therapeutic approach: Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). Since Dr. Shapiro’s discovery, EMDR has developed into a research-backed, standardized approach used across the world on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and a wide variety of other issues. 


How Does it Work?


Our brains, like the rest of our bodies, are naturally oriented towards health; the brain is designed to adaptively process stressful and traumatic events in the same way that cuts and broken bones heal. Disruptions to healing can happen for a wide variety of reasons and lead to maladaptive thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. EMDR therapy works to “jump start” and facilitate the brain in healing the way it typically would under ideal conditions.


To this day, we are learning more and more about why EMDR has proven to be so effective. The current research suggests that the eye movements and brain activity elicited by following the therapists guidance in bilateral stimulation (BLS) mimic that of the Rapid Eye Movement (REM) phase of sleep. REM sleep is the phase in which the events of the day are consolidated, made sense of, and stored. This makes sense as EMDR does not erase a memory, but instead “reorganizes” it and helps to make sense of it in a more adaptive way. Additionally, BLS encourages neural networks between the left and right hemispheres of the brain to form so that the left, “logical” side of the brain can assist the traumatized, “emotional” right side of the brain. 


What Should I Expect? 


When first beginning the process of EMDR therapy, you and your therapist will work to develop a safe, supportive therapeutic relationship and atmosphere. Your therapist will obtain a general history of you and the issue you wish to work on at a pace that feels comfortable and safe.


Once adequate information has been gathered, your therapist will work to help establish robust grounding and emotionally regulating skills. While EMDR often elicits strong emotions, you will not begin processing until both you and your therapist feel confident in your access to coping tools.


With emotion regulating skills in place, the processing will begin. You will be guided in bilateral stimulation (BLS) in the form of eye movements, tapping, and binaural audio while bringing up a traumatic or distressing memory. You will be directed to let the mind “go where it needs to go” in a type of free association, noticing what thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations arise. Your therapist will check in from time to time to monitor your progress. EMDR is not hypnosis nor exposure therapy-- patients are fully conscious and in control of the process with “one foot in the past, and one foot in the present moment.” As the therapy progresses, you will notice reduced distress related to the targeted memory and a more adaptive way of thinking and feeling about it. 


Once a memory has been fully processed, you and your therapist will revisit the issue that initially brought you into therapy and evaluate whether or not it has been resolved. If resolved, the therapy is considered complete. If not, there will be continued exploration and processing of related memories until the present-day issue is no longer impacting your life negatively. This does not mean every similar memory must be processed with EMDR. In fact, EMDR processing typically generalizes, meaning that working on one memory/issue often helps diffuse similar ones without actually doing processing on the specific memory/issue. 


How Long Will it Take? 


The process of EMDR therapy always begins with at least one to two sessions of history taking and establishing grounding tools. Once this is complete, timelines vary from individual to individual, and many patients experience relief after only one to two sessions. Typically, it does not take longer than six sessions to complete processing of a single-event trauma or memory. Complex and long-term trauma may require a longer term treatment plan. 


EMDR with Children


EMDR is an incredibly useful resource for children, especially those who struggle with communicating and opening up in therapy, as little talking is required from the patient. For children, we adapt EMDR into a child-friendly experience using wands, puppets, dancing, handheld “buzzers” to keep children engaged and willingly participating in the therapy. 



How Can EMDR Help Me?


While EMDR is a powerful tool for treating trauma and PTSD, that’s not all that is possible. EMDR has been shown to be effective in treating a wide range of issues which include but are not limited to: 

  • Anxiety 

  • Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

  • Panic Disorder

  • Phobias 

  • Depression 

  • Self Esteem

  • Eating Disorders 

  • Childhood/Attachment Wounds 

  • Chronic Pain 

  • Migraine Headaches

  • Phantom Limb Pain 

  • Suicidal Urges 

  • Sexual Issues

  • Tinnitus





Last month, we announced that Zakieh Alahmad, AMFT has joined the team at CARE-LA. We are excited to announce that she is now offering EMDR therapy services for children, adults, and teens. If you are interested in EMDR therapy for your child or yourself as an entry to therapy or in addition to existing psychotherapy, please reach out to us.


Click to find out more and book your EMDR appointment

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