EMDR is a psychotherapy guided by information processing therapy – it focuses on memories of difficult life experiences, including traumas. A traumatic event is any event that is overwhelming, any event in which the stress is greater than the person’s personal capacities and social supports. Trauma comes down to What is the story you tell yourself about what happened? Sometimes, people are unable to effectively process the trauma. Essentially, trauma gets “stuck” in the brain and gets in the way of adaptive processing. Rather than combining together to be an integrated experience, the traumatic experience is laid out in isolated pieces – images, body sensations, smells, sounds. It is like having all the ingredients for a cake laid out on the counter, but being unable to make the cake. Additionally, it is important to note that when trauma gets “stuck,” it is state-specific… in other words, if you were five years old when the trauma occurred, then you are emotionally five years old when you are triggered.
EMDR uses bilateral stimulation to establish dual attention; in other words, it uses sensory experiences (either eye movements or taps) to keep you grounded in the present, while focusing on an event that occurred in the past. Traumatic memories are stored in the emotional memory, in the limbic system. When reprocessed with EMDR, the memories are moved to cognitive memory. It additionally pairs the trauma with positive memories and thoughts, which allows us to use the traumatic incident in positive ways in the future.
Sometimes during the EMDR process, clients experience intense emotions. EMDR is not causing this emotional reaction; it is releasing it. If this occurs, rest assured that it will end.
In addition to being used for trauma, EMDR also helps manage distressing affect, facilitates the development of positive capacities, alleviates performance anxiety and enhances people’s functioning at work, in sports, and in the performing arts, and treats a wide range of illnesses.
The best thing about EMDR is that your own brain is doing the healing, and you are the one in control.
An Analogy for Trauma and EMDR: Imagine a river surrounded with trees on the river banks. Now imagine lightning hitting a tree, which falls across the river. The river slows for a bit while finding a way over and around the tree. Then lightning hits another tree, and another. The river gets dammed up, which results in the water overflowing and flooding the area. This is how the brain and trauma works. The river is flowing easily (the brain processes information) until the trees fall (trauma occurs). As the traumas build up, the brain gets stuck, and the individual starts to experience significant symptoms (like the river flooding the surrounding areas). EMDR essentially removes the trees from the river and allows the river to flow freely.
The Chinese character for crisis is a combination of two words – danger and opportunity. People who fully engage in recovery from trauma discover unexpected benefits. As they gradually heal their wounds, survivors find that they are also developing inner strength, compassion for others, increasing self-awareness, and are developing a greater ability to experience joy and serenity than ever before.
WHAT IS EMDR?
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing therapy, or EMDR, is an effective form of treatment for trauma. It is well-researched and considered an evidence-based practice for trauma treatment. Trauma can come in many forms and can be a single event such as a car accident and natural disasters, or chronic as in abuse or domestic violence. Even common upsetting childhood events such as divorce, school issues, or peer relationship difficulties can be treated with EMDR therapy.
When an upsetting, painful, or scary experience occurs, sometimes the brain does not know how to handle it and the memory stays stuck or frozen in the mind and body. These memories are also often encoded in fragments, which is why seemingly random things, like a smell, color, facial expression, tone of voice, or place, can be triggering. These traumatic events continue to be experienced in distressing and intrusive ways that don't always make sense to us. The child may learn to cope by avoiding everything associated with that experience or developing other maladaptive coping mechanisms that made sense when they were still in danger but are super unhealthy and unhelpful now. It can feel like they go from totally okay to totally NOT okay in what feels like milliseconds. The child may also experience distressing emotional, physical, sensory, and behavioral dysregulation that is difficult to understand, predict, or regulate.
HOW DOES EMDR WORK?
EMDR utilizes bilateral stimulation (BLS), a process that activates the left and right hemispheres of the brain. During EMDR therapy, bilateral stimulation can be in the form of eye movements, sounds, tapping, vibrations, or other movements incorporating both hemispheres of the brain. The bilateral stimulation processes events similar to the way the brain does at the end of the day while dreaming during REM sleep. For children, play therapy is also integrated with the addition of puppets, magic wands, art, sand, and games.
EMDR was developed beginning in 1987, when psychologist Francine Shapiro observed how eye movements reduced the intensity of negative disturbing thoughts. EMDR has been adapted and used worldwide to help children after such incidences such as the Sandy Hook school shooting, the tornadoes in Joplin, MO, and after September 11.
Aside from helping children process disturbing events, EMDR can also strengthen confidence and feelings of regulation. This is how most EMDR sessions begin, resourcing positive emotions and sensations. Then, the child is asked to recall the upsetting event. Through the use of eye movements or other bilateral stimulation, the child eventually becomes desensitized or deactivated by the disturbing memory. Reprocessing happens as new emotions and sensations are paired in the brain with the past feelings and images. The goal being for the child to recall the events as something that happened with the present believe that it’s over and I’m safe.
Sometimes, with attachment trauma or early childhood trauma, parents or caregivers are involved in some of this desensitization and processing. For example, a common method used with children, particularly those very young children, those with pre-verbal trauma, or those who have a very difficult time talking about their trauma, is the Storytelling Method. In this method, the therapist helps the child create a story/narrative of both positive and negative memories and events in the child’s life. Sometimes the caregiver will need to give additional information to help finish the story. The story is then read aloud while using bilateral stimulation (such as a caregiver, if they are available, tapping on the child’s shoulders or knees or rocking them back and forth) to help reprocess and integrate the trauma. The caregiver is often asked to do the same at home regularly between sessions (often with an abridged version if there are multiple traumatic events).
WHO CAN EMDR HELP?
EMDR therapy is effective for all children of all ages. It has been used with preverbal children up through the teenage years and beyond. Treatment is more effective with a network of caregivers and other adults supporting the child. Outside of trauma experiences, EMDR has been used successfully to treat depression, anxiety, phobias, and other behavioral issues. Everyone experiences the EMDR process in a different way. Some children feel calm at the end of the session, some are energized, while others are tired. Our brains are powerful and designed to protect us from danger. EMDR therapy is one tool in a therapist’s arsenal that can be used to help children process negative events or overwhelming emotions.
EMDR for Young Children: Children, like adults, can experience traumatic events that impact their emotional well-being. However, children may not have developed the same verbal processing abilities as adults, making it challenging for them to express and process their traumatic experiences through traditional talk therapy alone. EMDR offers a specialized approach that is particularly well-suited for young children.
Why EMDR Works for Young Children:
It is important that parents/caregivers are involved during the course of their child’s treatment. Part of EMDR treatment includes increasing the child’s resources and coping skills to manage any presenting symptoms. This can be a focus of treatment in the beginning and is crucial to build these skills before direct trauma processing. It is super important to help reinforce these skills at home. Furthermore, learning about EMDR and its process can help parents to communicate more effectively with their children about their symptoms and how to best help at home. For example, parents can help create a fun environment while reinforcing deep breathing exercises and practicing their bilateral stimulation (BLS).
Another important factor for parents is to take a non-judgmental approach and show understanding and compassion for their child’s progress. Parents must give their children a validating space by listening and being present, thereby creating a sense of value and support.
Ask, ask, ask! Parents can also help by asking open-ended questions to help monitor the child’s progress and understanding of treatment.
· Which skill do you want to practice today?
· Which positive thoughts did you come up with? How can I help remember them?
· Which is your favorite breathing exercise?
· Do you need help practicing your bilateral stimulation (BLS)? Can you show me the butterfly hug/gorilla tap you learned today?
Lastly, SELF-CARE! Trauma can also affect the family system and most importantly, it can take a toll on the child’s parents. Grounding before and after sessions may be crucial for parents, given that they will serve as co-regulators in sessions. Planning some quality time after sessions with snuggle time or child-led play can also help enhance the connection between the parent and their child.
A few of our child-friendly, play-based EMDR tools, including our Touchpoint bracelets for BLS.