By: A.M. Nelson, LMFT
EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, and it is a non-traditional type of psychotherapy. EMDR uses eye movements (or sounds, lights, physical touch) while guided by a therapist. EMDR therapy was developed by Francine Shapiro and uses the Adaptive Information Processing (AIP) theory. The AIP is a learning theory that posits that experiences are automatically connected to memory networks. As such, experiences are linked to existing perceptions, behaviors, and attitudes. The incoming sensory information is processed and connected to existing memory networks. Emotional distress or problems arise when memories or events are associated in non-helpful ways, or are not fully processed (see Solomon & Shapiro 2008 for further discussion). These problems are frequently expressed in negative cognitions, such as “I am not valuable,” or “It was my fault.” The EMDR technique accesses these traumatic memories and assists a more adaptive memory association to form (using your innate healing ability). Through the EMDR process, associations and memories linked with maladaptive negative cognitions are explored, and more adaptive, positive cognitions emerge, such as “I am valuable,” or “I did my best.”
The AIP theory of healing can be compared to physical wound healing. If you cut your hand, your body will automatically begin the process of healing. You don’t have to think about sending blood to form a scab or think about growing new skin cells; your body innately does the healing. But if there is splinter or a foreign object within the wound, your body tries to clear the object, or attempts to heal around the object. Once the foreign object that is blocking complete healing is removed, your body can heal the wound. When traumatic events occur, memories may be stored maladaptively. The EMDR process can be thought of as removing that foreign object that has blocked complete healing. Once the block has been removed, your innate ability to heal becomes effective and memories can be reprocessed, or new associations that are more adaptive can be created.
If those statements about negative cognitions and positive cognitions sound similar to cognitive-behavioral therapy to you, you aren’t off. Prior to creating EMDR therapy, Shapiro practiced as a CBT and a DBT therapist. It is worth mentioning that both modalities, EMDR and CBT are evidence-based practices for treating trauma, PTSD, anxiety disorders, and depressive disorders, among others. While the theories differ, it is worth noting similarities.
Recent neuroscience research continues to explore how the brain makes and stores memories. Specific memories are not localized within a specific sector of the brain, but rather, multiple brain structures and processes are utilized in creating and recalling memories and associations. The concept of neural networks, or the principle that “neurons that fire together, wire together” describes this functioning, and the work of Uri Bergmann (2012) explains the neurobiological processes of how EMDR works. Through the EMDR process, positive cognitions replace negative cognitions, and the positive neural networks are strengthened.
I am a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in California, currently offering sessions at my office in beautiful Mission Viejo, or distance sessions for residents of California. I provide both EMDR and CBT treatment options. If you are struggling, I invite you to contact me for a consultation to see if psychotherapy might help you reach your wellness goals.
Bergmann, U. (2012). Neurobiological foundations for EMDR practice. New York, NY: Springer Publishing Company, LLC.
Solomon, R.M. & Shapiro, F. (2008). EMDR and the adaptive information processing model: Potential mechanisms of change. Journal of EMDR Practice and Research, 2(4), 315-325.