How EMDR Can Help Your Anxiety

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EMDR for Anxiety Treatment: What Is It and Why Does It Work?

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Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) was developed by Francine Shapiro in 1987. Francine is a psychologist in California who was going for a walk in the outdoors and noticed that her anxiety levels went down after watching her eyes follow a branch moving from right to left. She felt compelled to understand the brain better, specific to using eye movements and bilateral stimulation (or tapping from the right to left) to help anxiety dissipate (Shapiro, 2012).

EMDR has become one of the most researched treatment modalities.

Within a few years many therapists had begun utilizing this skill to help their clients with their anxiety symptoms. Today, there are way over 30,000 mental health practitioners trained in EMDR. EMDR has been applied to not only anxiety disorders, but also to treatment of depression, eating disorders and schizophrenia.

EMDR offers hope to people who have been struggling with fears and uncomfortable symptoms where coping skills and talk therapy haven’t provided lasting relief. EMDR addresses the core of the symptom expression; the focus is in healing the root of the issue so your body can let go of recurrent issues.

In my practice I utilize EMDR in treatment to help clients alleviate anxiety symptoms related to post traumatic stress disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, relationship issues and chronic overwhelm.

I have been using EMDR on a daily basis for a number of years and have seen incredible symptom reduction in many who were responsive to this method.

How does EMDR work for your anxiety?

EMDR is a therapy technique that directs eye movements (or tapping from right-> left on knees or arms) while you are imagining a stressful situation or negative belief. EMDR helps process through the intensity of the emotions and helps you shift your attention to more positive, adaptive beliefs, naturally reducing your anxiety levels.

Here is a brief intro to what the beginning of EMDR treatment might look like:

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During this process, I want you to notice any body sensations, images, beliefs and emotions that are coming up. We are inviting and allowing the mind and body to experience the emotions, images and insights. You’ll simply ride through whatever comes up. There is no wrong way of doing this. It takes practice to get into the swing of things so be easy on yourself. Let’s go with what we can for today.

In advance, let me preface by saying that you may notice a newfound awareness, insight, or a sudden shift. You may also be aware of a more subtle shift such as a reduction in anxiety, body tension or overall sense of added ease and clear-headed-ness. EMDR’s mechanism activates what is called the Adaptive Information Processing (AIP) which means that regardless if you “feel” a shift, your brain is processing and moving the negative cognitions, thoughts and experiences to more adaptive, digestible (and often positive) ones. What you’ll notice is that we will be doing less talking, but rather, once the processing starts, I will check in with you between sets to ensure we’re on the right path, and encourage continued processing.

We do this to keep the part of the brain that is processing on track. Lengthy questions, analysis or shifting to talk therapy while processing will block the process. After EMDR processing is wrapped up, we then take the time to integrate the work it into your real-time life. However, this process is usually organic and flows naturally. And most often, the brain has already begun processing the information so less talk is needed, but rather, we slow the pace of the session to allow space for mindful digestion and for solidifying the work we are doing. In realtime,

EMDR is a natural therapeutic process and flows with ease, but the above is some of the basic information provided. Keep in mind, EMDR is a 8 step protocol, and you can read more on that here.

Also, I would like to note that people with complex trauma and dissociative tendencies or dissociative diagnosis will first engage in some prep work on working through the dissociation in order to do EMDR. Why? We want all the parts to be engaging in the EMDR and when there is dissociation or fragmentation, your body won’t experience the necessary relief.

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Processing anxiety with EMDR helps the client regain control over their emotional state.

How does this happen? EMDR helps rapidly reduce intensity of negative emotions and also creates less intensity of disturbing images that may be stuck in your mind. Based on Somatic Psychotherapy (sensorimotor psychotherapy and somatic experience) and brain science research, we also know that stress isn’t always only carried in the mind, but also in the body with tension, discomfort, cramping, trembling and body aches (Rothchild, 2000).

EMDR for Somatic Symptom Relief

EMDR has been proven to provide relief from a variety of somatic symptoms that are often connected to anxiety disorders, such as stomach cramping, headaches, sweaty hands, heart palpitations and shaky hands (Ogden, Minton & Pain, 2006).

In session I’ll often blend my skills from Sensorimotor Psychotherapy with EMDR processing. More info on somatic work here.

No Need to Re-traumatize

One of the benefits of EMDR is that it doesn’t require the patient to go into detail about traumatic experiences. Some therapies heavily focused on exposure and retelling the in-depth narrative believe that exposing the person to the event or images will provide relief. However, recent research findings show that in some cases, this kind of intensive exposure can traumatize the client and make symptoms even worse.

EMDR is particularly inviting to clients who have difficulty verbalizing their experiences because the events were either too painful or would be traumatizing to reimagine. According to neuroscience, it is not at all necessary to bring up detailed imaging or verbally express every part of a trauma, rather, you can bring up an image, belief, and body sensation that go with something that represents the worst part of the event (even when thinking of it) and process it on an internal level.

A compassionate and skilled EMDR therapist guides the client to a place of inner safety and increased tranquility as the processing continues. EMDR clients have often expressed that this method helped them access parts of themselves that traditional talk therapies and CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) did not allow to access.

EMDR Efficacy and the Theories behind it

Though there is lots of evidence that EMDR does work, there is less obvious reasoning as to “how” it works. One of the thinking minds, Dr. Joseph Goldberg, has shared that “by inducing the recall of distressing events (and thoughts) and diverting attention from their emotional consequences, EMDR in some respects borrows basic principles used in exposure therapy….”

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As well, Francine Shapiro expresses another interesting theory as to why EMDR works, and specifically simulates the effects of rapid eye movement (REM) that we experience in sleep (Shapiro, 2018). Shapiro says, “ REM occurs in the same stage of sleep as dreaming, and during this time, scientists believe, the brain processes survival information. The implication is that, like REM sleep, the eye movements of EMDR facilitate the transfer of episodic memory, which includes emotion, physical sensations, and beliefs associated with the original event, into semantic memory networks, in which the meaning of the event has been extracted and negative associations are no longer present” (Marzillier, 2014).

You don’t have to have gone through a distressing event for EMDR process to be effective. You can simply use a hypothetically stress-inducing situation or imagine future events that would bring anxiety forth, and the EMDR technique can be useful.

What I find fascinating about EMDR is that part of the success of the modality is the way it engages the creativity, imagination and the brain’s natural ability to process. Having the mind and body hold a sense of calm and stability while dipping into something potentially distressing reminds the body of its capacities to deal and also provides insight into what kinds of coping will be needed in the future.

Want to resolve blockages to your healing? EMDR can help.

If you’ve been on the healing journey but have been getting stuck, you can use EMDR to release the blockages so you can dive into deeper level healing. Now, you may not always start with EMDR right away and your therapist may not use it 100% of the session time. Good psychotherapy often includes a combination of a few therapy types. This is especially important as each person responds differently to different treatment approaches. In my office, I often utilize EMDR in conjunction with talk therapies, expressive arts and somatic informed approaches. Our focus is to reduce your suffering and increase capacities for joy and connection.

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Reach out today to receive EMDR treatment in Five Towns, Nassau or Long Island.

If you are struggling with ongoing anxiety, I would be happy to guide you on your healing journey! As you may know, anxiety may be impacting you in more ways than one; your ability to be present, to function well at home and work and you may be more susceptible to getting sick. Good therapy can help you relieve the weights so you restore emotional resilience and find strength within.

If you’re ready to do the work to build the life you desire, reach out today to schedule an appointment at my Cedarhurst office in Long Island, NY.

Sources:

Marzillier, J (2014): The Trauma Therapies 1st Edition

Ogden, Minton & Pain (2006) Trauma and the Body: A Sensorimotor Approach to Psychotherapy (Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology) 1st Edition

Rothschild, B (2000) the Body Remembers: The Psychophysiology of Trauma and Trauma Treatment

Shapiro, F (2012):Getting Past Your Past: Take Control of Your Life with Self-Help Techniques from EMDR Therapy Hardcover 

Shapiro, F (2018): Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) Therapy, Third Edition: Basic Principles, Protocols, and Procedures Third Edition