Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy (EMDR)

I first noticed Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) Therapy as an effective treatment method when I pursued my Master’s Degree in 1995. I was researching for the research paper on treatment for adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse (CSA). As a young graduate student, the treatment methods of EMDR sounded like Voodoo to me then. But then, I wondered how moving your eyes following a therapist’s fingers can heal trauma.

Fast forward to the 21st century, I was in a workshop Dr. Van Der Kolk presented for different trauma treatments. He gave different trauma treatments and compared these other models and methods. In one video, he showed us the before and after the presentation of a trauma survivor in his therapy room.

In that video, the client said something like this:

Before EMDR treatment, I “knew” what happened was not my fault. After EMDR treatment, I “feel” what happened was not my fault. 

I was in shock because that was what I repeatedly heard throughout the years of working with my clients who are trauma survivors. “I know what you said was right, and it’s not my fault, but a part of me still “feels” that way.”

That was when I realized the somatic “feel” is an essential missing piece in my clinical practice. So I signed up for EMDR training as soon as I saved up enough money to do so. 

So, what is EMDR therapy?

There are many references and citations from accredited sources to explain EMDR therapy. The following paragraphs are what I explained to my clients. 

EMDR is a treatment model with eight stages guided by Adaptive Information Processing (AIP) model. “Moving your eyes following the therapist’s finger” is only one of the stages of the entire EMDR therapy. According to the AIP model, our brain has a natural healing power to heal from traumatic events such as being humiliated by a classmate or losing a loved one. However, there are times when trauma can overwhelmed our neurological system and disrupt the adaptive information system. The traumatic experiences became stuck in the system and unable to assimilate into the memory network. EMDR therapy aims to assist the brain in processing these unresolved traumatic experiences. 

EMDR therapy focuses on three different time frames, present, past, and future. I start the session with “What brings you in” and discuss the “present” triggers and their desired outcome (future) with the clients. Then, while evaluating the current triggering event, we identify the physical sensations when the trigger happened, the thoughts that come into mind, and the emotions. Then, I help the clients to locate the earliest memory that sets the foundation of similar feelings, thoughts, and physical sensations. That is what EMDR therapy calls the “target memory” (or touchstone memory) (past), and the memory we will process by “moving your eyes following the therapist’s fingers.”

From the AIP model, our brain starts to develop a system that categorizes similar images, physical sensations, thoughts/beliefs, and similar emotions starting from earlier memories when similar traumatic events happened. As we add more memories into the memory network throughout the developmental process, the memory system produces like a big tree in the brain, setting up the memory network. The trigger is like a wind blowing into the tree. Even when there is only a slight breeze, the entire tree can shake. Therefore, instead of identifying one incident at a time, we go for the tree’s root by focusing on the touchstone memory. 

Bilateral stimulation (BLS), or “moving your eyes following the therapist’s fingers, ” activates the memory network. All the client has to do is to hold the worst part of the memory, feel the physical sensation, think about the negative cognition (thoughts) and emotions, and “notice what comes up”. Because we don’t know how the memory is connected, we don’t know what will show up. However, no matter what shows up, remember that your brain has the healing power to take you where you are ready. In the end, it all makes sense as to why this particular memory showed up. 

I explained to my client that this process is like the old computer defragments of the hard drive:

  1. We had to defragment the hard drive in the old computer system to eliminate the temporary or corrupted files.
  2. Put the files we still need into the right place.
  3. The computer will run faster and smoother. The BLS is like a defragment process. We clean out the traumatic experiences that no longer serve us and put the information that continues to be helpful in its proper place.
  4. Move on with our life with a faster and smoother operation. 

Once the trauma memory is processed (meaning desensitized and reprocessed), we developed the future template, meaning the new responses we would like to have when the same trigger happens, and installed the future template with BLS. 

For more information about EMDR Therapy, please see the following articles. 

Client’s EMDR Treatment Experiences. 


Anonymous Client # 1

EMDR for me was an experience that broke a lot of barriers I had put up throughout my childhood and young adult life…… (continue reading)