EMDR Frequently Asked Questions

In the past, all therapists had to work from was symptoms making psychological treatment somewhat of a “trial & error” process. We now know that all emotional disturbances are caused by either too much activity or too little activity in specific areas in the brain. There are several thousand different patterns of brain activity that could be causing symptoms!

A recent technology called SPECT scanning has been developed that allows Doctors to actually see the activity in a person’s brain and know exactly what is happening (for more information on SPECT scanning, I would encourage you to go to www.brainplace.com, website of neuroscientist Dr. Daniel Amen, the world’s foremost expert on the development and use of SPECT scanning).

All brain activity patterns, thinking patterns, emotional patterns, behavior patterns, communication patterns, relationship patterns – the good ones and the bad ones–are simply the result of an accumulation of experiences stored in your brain and nervous system.

Most of the negative “patterns” people want to change have been caused by one of two things (sometimes both). The first is something called imprinting. From the time you’re born (and earlier), your brain starts developing very rapidly, and how it develops is shaped tremendously by everything being pulled in through your five senses. This creates an “imprint” on your developing brain. This becomes sort like a “default mode”–the conditioned way you will naturally tend to think, feel, and act, unless other forces have somehow reshaped this imprinting later on. So early life experiences (even ones you can’t consciously remember)–especially experiences with caregivers and others close around you–have a massive influence on personality development.

The second major shaping influence for these patterns is stress. Pretty much from conception onward, anytime you’re under any type of stress your brain triggers certain glands in your body to produce a large amount of hormones we call “stress hormones”–things like adrenaline, cortisol, and some other things. During these periods of time, your brain does not process the information coming in through your five senses the way it normally does. This leads to a chain reaction of effects in your nervous system: it’s a little hard to explain, but it’s kind of like “undigested” sensory data that creates “blockages” in your nervous system, alterations to pathways within your nervous system, and alterations to brain chemistry where your neurotransmitters (seratonin, dopamine, etc.) get thrown out of balance.

It is the build up of the effects of this “stress response” in your body, brain, and nervous system that is believed to be the culprit behind most of the emotional difficulties that people experience. Basically, you’ve reached a point where certain things are triggering a pattern of neurological impulses in your body to fire off over and over again. The most challenging thing is that over time all these patterns get stronger and stronger. On a neurological level, it’s like water running through a trench–the more water that runs through it, the deeper it gets carved out until you get to the point where it seems like everything wants to flow into that groove much too easily.

That is one option, with some clear disadvantages–the biggest one being simply that unless you restore your body’s ability to self-regulate brain chemistry properly on its own, you’re stuck taking the drugs the rest of your life.

A better option is EMDR.

EMDR is the best thing I’ve ever found for changing emotional reactions, negative thought patterns, and entrenched habits (and often times even physical discomfort) that people can’t just “think themselves out of.” EMDR has given us the ability to essentially reverse all those negative patterns that have developed in your brain, body, and nervous system.

There are two key elements of EMDR treatment.

The first is something called “bilateral stimulation”–which just means “two-sided stimulation.” Creating a rhythmic, back and forth stimulation activates each hemisphere of the brain stimulating something we call the “information processing system” to go into a highly accelerated mode of functioning–which is exactly the treatment effect we have to create to get the results we’re after. There are several different methods that have been developed for creating the “bilateral stimulation” effect, I will help you choose which one works best for you, either tapping, auditory sounds or eye movements.

The second key element of EMDR treatment is sort of the “art and science” of how I have to prompt and guide your thoughts while we’re doing the bilateral stimulation. I’ll explain this in more detail to you as it will be determined by a number of factors individual to your unique situation.

The end result of EMDR treatment is to reduce and eliminate negative thoughts & feelings, to increase and strengthen positive thoughts and feelings, and to enable you to really be at your best in your everyday life.

According to the December, 2005 Harvard Mental Health Letter (“Post-traumatic Stress Without Trauma”): Experiences not usually regarded as traumatic can cause the characteristic symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder.

Surprisingly, life events such as: relationship problems, work problems, financial problems, school problems, health problems, significant losses or life changes – were as likely as traumatic events to cause symptoms typical of PTSD. In fact, people whose worst event was not traumatic had more post-traumatic stress symptoms for a longer time than those whose worst event was considered traumatic.

The authors suggest that life events may increase overall psychological stress and distress, bringing on symptoms related to an earlier trauma.

Traumatic events may reduce the ability to cope with other kinds of stress. Both traumatic experiences and overall distress may increase the risk of developing post-traumatic symptoms after either a traumatic experience or a non-traumatic life event.

EMDR is very different than hypnosis in three important ways:

In EMDR you don’t go into any kind of “altered state”–you’re totally aware of what’s going on, you’re totally in control of the process, and it’s nothing that somebody is doing to you–it’s your brain that’s doing the work; the EMDR is simply a catalyst for speeding up the benefits you get from psychotherapy.

EMDR does not have the capacity to create false memories.

EMDR is not at all dependent on the placebo effect–someone can be totally convinced that it’s not going to work and it still can work just as well, because it’s purely a biophysical process (it’s the biggest skeptics that I have the most fun with when we first start doing EMDR, because they’re the most surprised at how well it works!).

EMDR has actually received a great deal of media attention the last few years. Segments have been run on shows like Dateline and 20/20 spotlighting the extraordinary speed and effectiveness of EMDR. No psychotherapy method could ever compete with the millions of advertising dollars spent each year by pharmaceutical companies marketing their psychotropic drugs.

“Why are there not more EMDR therapists around here?” More therapists are learning of the effectiveness of this treatment and are being trained to provide it each year. In places like California and New York there are literally thousands of EMDR therapists (for a complete listing, please visit EMDR.org).

“Why do you like EMDR so much?”

• I’ve just never seen anything that works as rapidly, effectively, easily, and permanently as EMDR.

“So how quickly can I expect to reach my treatment goals?”

• That depends on a number of variables unique to your own situation, here are some generalities:

Usually people seem to progress about four times as fast with EMDR than with any other form of treatment I’ve ever seen. Often I have seen the changes occur so rapidly that most people start noticing positive benefits from the very first session. You can speed up the pace of our progress by choosing as healthy as possible lifestyle.

“Can EMDR get me off medication?”

• I never make any promises, but so far I’ve had great success in helping people reduce and often eliminate their need for antidepressants, anxiety meds, and ADD meds. I do believe that some diagnosis do need to stay on their prescribed medications.

“Could our EMDR work accidentally change something I don’t really want to change?”

• No. Your brain came “pre-programmed” to automatically do what you want it to do–it just has to be stimulated correctly! EMDR seems to help your brain get rid of what you don’t want and need, and actually strengthen what you do want and need. It will not take away anything useful for you, and it will not change anything you don’t want to change.

1. EMDR has a tendency to make bad memories seem very distant or unclear, so if we’re dealing with something you’re going to have to testify about in court, we’re going to want to talk to your attorney about the possible implications of your treatment (you may end up being a terrible witness!).

2. EMDR has the ability to bring back a memory strongly enough so that you may momentarily have the same intensity of emotion that you had at the time the event was occurring. Because of the way I use EMDR very strategically, this happens very rarely with my clients–the vast majority of them find our work to be very gentle, calming, and relaxing. If it were to occur, I would always take the time to help you get to a better place with it before you leave my office–my goal is to always leave people walking out feeling better than when they walked in!

If you are in recovery for any form of addiction and “strong feelings” are one of your triggers, I would encourage you to be very aggressive about “working your program” and make sure you have a good relapse prevention plan in place.

If you have any fears or concerns about getting “overwhelmed” by feelings, please let me know about this and before we even start our EMDR work.

For detailed answers to that question, I would encourage you to go to www.emdr.com/studies.htm, but here are a few answers:

• EMDR has been judged as empirically validated and given a rating of “highest level of effectiveness” in numerous international practice guidelines including The American Psychiatric Association Practice Guidelines.

• In September of 2000 EMDR was accepted by the management of the Vanderbilt Mental Health Center in Nashville (a division of the Vanderbilt University Medical Center) as one of only three acceptable treatment methods for their seriously and consistently mentally ill patients. This acceptance was influenced by one clinician, Jan Stadtlander, LCSW, who had been using EMDR with her patients for seven years and achieving remarkable results with them.

• EMDR is the most researched psychotherapy method for PTSD.

• There are more controlled studies that have evaluated the effectiveness of EMDR in the treatment of PTSD than any other method.

• As of 2002, more than 20 controlled outcome studies of EMDR have already been published and/or presented. These studies all found EMDR superior to the control condition on measures of PTSD, with EMDR using fewer treatment sessions to achieve effects. Follow up studies at intervals up to 5 years after treatment have indicated a high level of maintenance of treatment effects.

• EMDR is on the American Psychological Association Division of Clinical Psychology’s list of empirically validated methods. Only two other methods are even on this list for the treatment of PTSD.

• The International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies has stated that EMDR is an “effective treatment.”

• EMDR is endorsed by the American Red Cross, the FBI, the International Critical Incident Stress Management Foundation, and major HMO’s such as Kaiser and Value Options.

• EMDR courses are being taught in over 30 colleges and universities, and it is part of the standard treatment in many VA hospitals.

• EMDR was used extensively to treat survivors in the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombings, and in New York after 9-11.

New research presented in the Fall of 2003 in Chicago by Dr. Bessel A. van der Kolk, M.D. is showing EMDR to be more effective than the SSRI’s (drugs like Prozac & Zoloft). (Dr. van der Kolk is Professor of Psychiatry at Boston University Medical School, Clinical Director of the Trauma Center at HRI Hospital in Brookline, Massachusetts, and past President of the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies (ISTSS). He has taught at universities and hospitals across the United States and around the world, including Europe, Africa, Russia, Australia, Israel, and China. He has been active as a clinician, researcher and teacher in the area of stress since the 1970s. He has published extensively on the impact of stress on human development, and his book Psychological Trauma was the first integrative text on the subject. His latest book explores what we have learned in the past 20 years about the role of stress in psychiatric illness, and his current research is on brain imaging and how stress affects memory processes.)

This information has been adapted from a compilation by Gregory S. Smith, LISW-CPS in South Carolina and is used to inform clients with his permission.