WHAT IS EMDR?
EMDR, or Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, is a therapeutic intervention that allows clients to hone in on a traumatic event while concurrently experiencing bilateral stimulation. Memory recall, combined with this type of left- and right-body engagement has been correlated with a decrease in the intensity of emotions associated with trauma. EMDR has helped people recover from symptoms related to PTSD, trauma, anxiety, depression, OCD, chronic pain, addictions and numerous other disrupting symptoms.
Psychologist and educator, Francine Shapiro, pioneered the technique in 1987 after she found herself walking in a park and noticing that eye movements seemingly lessened the intensity of her emotions as they pertained to her own troubling memories. Thus, her extensive research began, and not long after, Shapiro was able to prove that bilateral stimulation and eye movements had the power to provide immense relief to those plagued with a variety of emotional struggles.
We spoke to psychotherapist Elissa Stein, the founder and director of The Riverwalk Group in Stamford, to learn more about EMDR and how it enhances her ability to treat clients.
WHAT WAS EMDR TRAINING LIKE, AND DID YOU HAVE ANY HESITATION AT FIRST?
I learned EMDR in 2009 as part of my trauma certification from ICP (Institute for Contemporary Psychotherapy). To be completely honest, at first, I thought maybe I had lost my mind a little…this was so foreign compared to anything else I had ever done before. I was learning this odd technique that I really didn’t know anything about. After I began to understand more about the history and the efficacy of EMDR, I became very interested. It was a different modality than those I had used in the past, but I was open to trying it. EMDR has since become an invaluable tool for many of my clients. Part of the training is that you have to try it yourself. I not only did that but then also went on to do it privately and had a lot of my own interesting and successful experiences. I would never be able to practice EMDR as much as I do, if I didn’t completely believe in it. The evidence for its success is overwhelming, and, because of EMDR, so many people are getting help and feeling better.
WHAT METHODS DID YOU USE PRIOR TO LEARNING EMDR, AND HOW HAS IT CHANGED THE WAY YOU PRACTICE?
Prior to my EMDR training, I focused mostly on relational talk therapy after having done post-graduate work in marriage and family therapy at The Family Institute of Westchester. I found myself working with so many people dealing with trauma and decided I needed to learn more, so I began my education in the world of Integrative Trauma Therapy, which has definitely changed the way I work. I now have a very different lens and incorporate EMDR and other trauma modalities and techniques when working with individuals and couples. Each case is unique. Sometimes I combine techniques and modalities, and sometimes I do straight EMDR; it really depends on the circumstance. Trauma therapy is not one-stop shopping.
HOW DO YOU PREPARE A CLIENT FOR AN EMDR SESSION?
I always do an initial assessment to see if someone is a candidate. Not everyone is. Sometimes people need preparation before doing the deeper work of going inside, which is what EMDR is all about. If EMDR seems like it could be a good fit for the client and situation, I will explain a little bit about the history of the treatment and the specific protocol that is used. I might show them the actual EMDR machine and talk to them about why I’m suggesting this technique. Then we generally do some work to prepare to begin EMDR, which could take anywhere from one to three sessions. I’m also happy to answer any questions the client may have prior to starting the process.
WHY IS EMDR SO EFFECTIVE FOR TRAUMA RECOVERY?
My experience has been that the mechanism of using bilateral stimulation creates an opening for a different kind of work than that of talk therapy. It helps the brain integrate information on both the right and left sides of the brain. Once this information has been fully integrated, someone can generally process their trauma more thoroughly.
EMDR allows people to get to a deeper layer, do more meaningful work and make connections they may not have made otherwise. I think it’s an invaluable tool for some. It is more of an inside experience as opposed to an external experience, and clients are able to access a subconscious place within themselves. The desensitization part means that the memory is lessened, so if someone starts off at a rating of nine out of ten, the hope is that their number will keep coming down as they move through the process. The reprocessing step involves pulling up the memory and experiencing it again with the bilateral simulation. This step helps the brain to absorb and download the information in a different kind of way. In trauma, there is often a freeze response, because the brain can’t fully process what is happening. This can cause someone to sort of get stuck, even in a subconscious way. Sometimes during an EMDR session people will remember certain details that they weren’t consciously aware of before.
The other thing I find fascinating is that in addition to all that EMDR does, it often helps people make connections in ways that aren’t obviously relevant. It can help someone, at age fifty, to process something that happened at age ten and to realize why they do things the way they do.
CAN EMDR BE USED FOR ANY SITUATIONS THAT ARE CAUSING STRESS, EVEN IF THE SCENARIO MIGHT NOT NECESSARILY SEEM TEXTBOOK “TRAUMATIC?”
Yes, absolutely. EMDR can be used for phobias and anxiety; it’s definitely not just for PTSD. In the trauma community, we use the language that there are capital “T” traumas and lowercase “t” traumas. Some of us have capital “T” trauma, and all of us have lowercase “t” trauma. Whether someone went through something horrific like an assault or an accident or has memories of being horribly bullied, shamed by a teacher or being cut from a sport or a play—all of these things can feel overwhelming. The definition of trauma is “an overwhelming experience to the mind and body,” and while situations might vary in intensity, EMDR can help ease a wide chasm of struggles.
WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO SOMEONE WHO IS INTERESTED IN EMDR BUT APPREHENSIVE ABOUT SEEKING TREATMENT?
Over the past few years, my practice has received more calls inquiring about EMDR than ever before. I’d suggest speaking to a trained EMDR therapist to inquire about the process and gain a better understanding of the treatment. I’d also advise asking a lot of questions. EMDR is a different approach; and even though it’s become more common in recent years, people often have a lot that they are wondering about and are looking for a safe space to get information and answers. More details can also be found online at emdria.org.
About ELISSA STEIN
When Elissa isn’t working with clients, she enjoys spending time with her family and friends, practicing yoga, reading, writing and hiking with her dog Yoda. She collects heart-shaped rocks and believes in the healing power of a good belly laugh. The Riverwalk Group is located at 666 Glenbrook Road in Stamford. For more information, visit theriverwalkgroup.com.
Image: Eye by Amphawan – stock.adobe.com; Photograph: contributed