The Reprogramming Approach
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, or EMDR, is a non-traditional style of therapy in the sense that it doesn’t rely on talking techniques or problem analysis. Instead, EMDR therapy helps clients manage the impact of traumatic events by attending to rapid, rhythmic eye movements as clients process trauma-related information. It’s standard practice to ask clients to follow visually follow hand movements while recalling a traumatic event. Afterwards, clients are assisted in reprocessing their experience by again linking thoughts and reactions with outside stimuli (usually music or tapping) but this time by accessing more adaptive information.
If you’ve survived a traumatic event, it’s not unusual to experience extreme stress reactions. In fact, these reactions are expected, you’re normal if you have them, given the shock and strain you’ve gone through. Recurrent thoughts about the event, a desire to avoid any reminder of what happened, physical reactions such as shaking and cold sweat, as well as emotional responses such as incessant crying or angry outbursts, are all part of coping with unusual and extreme situations.
EMDR therapy has been found to be particularly effective for Acute Stress Disorder and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), both stress reactions after a traumatic experience.
How does it work?
Francine Shapiro, who founded this approach, grounds EMDR on the way information is processed in our brains. In particular, Shapiro found that when memories are stored, they’re linked with emotions, bodily reactions, sensations, and other memories. For the processing of an experience to be adaptive, these elements must be synchronised in a congruent way.
However, when traumatic events happen, some of the links get broken, and the processing of information becomes distorted. A war veteran, for example, may know that the war is over but still the bodily reactions persist, as the information linking was left incomplete. When this link is reprogrammed, healing can begin.
Full treatment involves a three-pronged process: 1. Past memories, 2.Present disturbance, 3. future actions. The goal of EMDR therapy is to completely process the experiences that are causing problems. Processing does not mean talking about the issue or experience, it means setting up a learning state that will allow negative, problematic experiences to be digested and stored more appropriately in your brain. This process can then guide you in positive ways in the future, leaving you with the emotions, understanding and attitudes that will allow healthy behaviours and interactions.
What issues does it treat?
As mentioned previously, EMDR has been found most helpful for people who have witnessed or experienced a traumatic event. What constitutes as traumatic differs from person to person, depending on their coping resources. Survivors of extreme situations like violence or natural disasters may experience post-event stress reactions. But some people may find the loss of a job or a break up with a partner as traumatic as well. EMDR therapy is a great alternative when clients find it difficult to talk about what happened to them.
But while EMDR therapy is known more for handling trauma reactions, it has also been found helpful for other conditions where the link between emotions and reactions need to be reprogrammed.
People whose memories need healing, such as adult children of abusive parents, can benefit from EMDR. Similarly, addictions like gambling or overeating are treated through EMDR by re-processing links between cravings and behaviour. Anxiety disorders and panic attacks have also been helped by EMDR therapy.
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