When thinking about EMDR, many clients think about the phase four processing: “moving your eyes with the clinician’s fingers (wand, light bars, or buzzers).” Many clients believed that moving their eyes can rewire their brain and “it’s a painless process” in comparison to“talk therapy” because they don’t have to “feel” anything.
EMDR seems amazing, right? Unfortunately, I found many clients cannot get the full benefit of EMDR and even drop out sooner than desired. Why? From my experiences as an EMDR therapist and an EMDR client, I think the main reason is a myth about EMDR.
This idea that “you just move your eyes with the clinician’s fingers (or “light bars” or “buzzers”) is not wrong but also not a complete picture of EMDR therapy.
EMDR is an eight-phase therapy process starting with treatment planning (phase one), establishing the therapeutic alliance or preparation (phase two), identifying the target memory and assessing the baseline of the target memory (phase three), desensitization (phase four bilateral stimulation), installed positive beliefs (phase five), body scan (phase six), closure (phase seven), and future template or re-evaluation for unfinished target memories (phase eight).
The first three phases are no different from any psychotherapy process: you meet the clinician, share the purpose and goals, and evaluate whether you like this clinician to trust your deepest and darkest experiences.
Therefore, it is true that the client does not have to “talk” about the details of the trauma memories. However, it is also true that the client has to “feel” the embodied experiences of the trauma memory.
What’s effective in EMDR therapy is its emphasis on the embodied experiences, which correspond to brain development and allow the clients NOT to “talk” about the details of the traumatic experiences. At the same time, for the treatment to be effective, the clients need to “feel” the traumatic experiences to desensitize the embodied experiences and to reprocess the experiences to give the traumatic experiences a new meaning.
So, why is “desensitizing” the embodied experience significant? When a traumatic event happens, a person might undergo dissociative responses to survive the experience. For example, a child who suffered from abuse had to cut out the physical sensations to survive the painful reactions, especially when the perpetrator was the parents the child relied on for love and protection. Therefore, to desensitize the painful experiences remembered in the body, the clients must first allow themselves to experience the memories in the body (physical sensation) in the worst part of the memory (images).
Therefore, it is true that a client does not have to “talk” about the details of the traumatic experiences, but it can still be painful to go through the processing. The idea that “I am just moving my eyes to rewire my brain” is a straightforward statement but not an easy process. For desensitization to work, the client needs to “feel” the embodied experiences, which can be challenging.
That is why “trusting” the clinician you are working with to allow yourself to experience the painful memories in Phases One, Two, and Three is so essential. We want to trust that the clinician in front of us will guide us through the process and back to our functioning selves before we leave the therapy room.
It is also why many clients who started to experience the painful experiences dropped out of the treatment or stopped the phase four processing prematurely. The process of rewiring the brain involves experiencing some painful physical memories that we tried to bury in the past.
When I went through my personal EMDR treatment, I often experienced some disorientation when I left my session. I learned to bring water to the sessions and to walk around my clinician’s office to ground myself before I drove away. I learned to journal between the sessions to pay attention to my desensitization and reprocessing experiences to bring up to my clinician in the following sessions. These personal experiences helped me in observing my clients’ experiences.
For EMDR to work, my clinical experience is to slow down in Phases One, Two, and Three and to build a supportive and trusting relationship with the clients so that the clients feel safe in my presence to do the work. In phase four processing, I learned to watch out for whether the client is experiencing embodied experiences within their window of tolerance to benefit most from the processing while watching out for whether they are grounded enough to end therapy.
Still, many clients found the experiences difficult and often felt “disappointed” or “confused” why EMDR is not as straightforward or painless as they read in magazines or heard from celebrities who shared their experiences. I am empathetic with those experiences but encourage clients to trust their process to get through it. As a clinician, EMDR has allowed me to witness many “miracle” moments after the clients desensitized their embodied memories and reprocessed the thoughts and emotions connected to the traumatic experiences. I often shared with my clients: “I could not have predicted that to come if not for your courage to go through the processing” I witnessed the “brain’s healing power”, the statement I heard from my trainer on my first training day, in my daily EMDR process. I am so grateful to all my clients who allow me to sit with their painful body memories and witness their transformation.
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy (EMDR) Series
Brain Development and EMDR Therapy
Making the most of EMDR: Difficulties in Going Through EMDR Treatment.