Things to know before you start
EMDR understands that our brain has a natural processing system for processing and adaptively storing memories and experiences – even difficult ones. There are times however where an experience can overwhelm this natural processing system in the moment, and the memory or experience can be stored in a way that is not helpful. It is not helpful to experience disturbing emotions, beliefs, or body sensations about (or connected to) a past experience.
EMDR supports the brain to “desensitize” an experience until it no longer feels disturbing and “reprocess” the memory so that it is stored adaptively within the memory networks. When an experience has been processed, we will still understand it as a negative experience, but the memory does not elicit the same disturbance.
How does it work?
EMDR therapy uses a dual attention stimulation (DAS) to support the process of desensitizing and reprocessing a memory or experience. In general, this means using a left-right-left-right movement (tracking your therapist’s fingers, butterfly taps on your chest or knees, alternating sounds pulses in your ears, alternating vibration with pulsers in your hands, or even tracking a ball on your computer screen). With your therapist, you will discuss this left-right-left-right movement, practice together, and decide on which mechanism you will use. EMDR therapy can happen both virtually or in-person.
Wait, hold on, though…
This left-right-left-right movement isn’t random, and it won’t start right away. There are some steps to take first.
History and Treatment Planning
Before jumping into difficult memories, your therapist is going to want to get to know you and begin to understand your experiences, your history, and your goals for EMDR. For some people, they may come to therapy with a single difficult experience from adulthood (e.g. a car accident). For others, they may have had many difficult experiences in adulthood that link to possibly similar difficult experiences in childhood. With your therapist, you will begin to understand themes in your life experiences, and create a treatment plan based on your current symptoms and particular life experiences. Your goals for your therapy will be at the forefront of this phase.
You and your therapist will begin to develop and practice resources that will help prepare you to cope with emotional disturbances that can arise in EMDR reprocessing work. You may have come to therapy with some tools already that you find helpful and supportive. This is great! You may use these tools and you may also add some new ones to your repertoire. This is a time where you may develop a state-changing resource – sometimes called “Calm Place” – and a containment resource – sometimes called “A Container”. A state-changing resource is often an inner resource or visualization that can help ‘change your state’ from feeling upset to feeling calm or peaceful. A containment resource is meant to help ‘contain’ the difficult work you may be doing in your therapy sessions. These are two examples, and with your therapist you may develop other types of resources that will help you feel supported in your EMDR reprocessing work.
Here we go!
At this point, you have developed a relationship with your therapist. You have a clear treatment plan and you have practiced resources to support you in your reprocessing. You know what memories you are going to work on and you have decided on which left-right-left-right movement you will be using. You have had a chance to ask questions about the process and you and your therapist feel ready to move forward. Congratulations! EMDR is a brilliant and highly evidence-based form of therapy. You are well on your way to supporting your brain’s natural capacity to move toward healing and wellness.
Danielle is a Registered Social Worker and psychotherapist in Hamilton, Ontario. She works with experiences of anxiety, depression, and trauma from a relational and client-centred approach. She is an EMDR Consultant-in-Training. She’s probably drinking a very hot coffee, right now. More questions? Reach out here.