MDR is a treatment modality typically used with people who are suffering from symptoms of traumatic events that happened in their history, and which continue to beleaguer their current lives. EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing and works with the brain hemispheres to reprocess life events that have become caught or stuck in the person’s memory in a dysfunctional, maladaptive way. Typically, when we experience an event in our lives, it gets stored in our memory in a way that, when we recall it, it is simply a picture from a story book that doesn’t contain all the same sensory experiences we may have had at the time of the event. When we experience an event in our lives that is traumatic, however, the memory of it can get stuck with all the original images, thoughts/beliefs, sounds and physical sensations that happened at the time of the event. When this happens, it means that the brain hasn’t processed the memory properly so that the person can move on with their life without being haunted by the event. The common example here is the war veteran who hears a car door slam while walking down the street, confuses that sound with a gun shot or bomb, and is suddenly triggered back to a battle scene during their service in the war; they become ridden with panic and fear and the inability to stay attuned to the present moment.
EMDR originated decades ago and was used with soldiers coming back from war. What we’ve learned about the treatment since then, however, is that it works for those suffering from major trauma or what we refer to as “big ‘T’ trauma”, as well as minor trauma or what we refer to as “small ‘t’ trauma”. A person does not have to have undergone an obviously traumatic event to benefit from EMDR. It has been used in family therapy, addictions treatment, for people with eating disorders, and with various other clinical issues whose roots are found in upsetting or traumatic life events that are causing problems in the person’s current life. The goal of EMDR is to take the traumatic event and transform it into a historical memory by means of desensitizing the upsetting experiences associated with the memory, and reprocessing the negative belief connected to it. By engaging in this process, the person may be free of the post-event distress that occurred at the time of the event.
EMDR has been shown to work with a large number of people but is not successful for everyone. Some of the students who have participated in this treatment describe the process like a fast-moving train, where many thoughts, images, and physical sensations happen in quick succession of one another. Those thoughts, images and sensations are described as seemingly unrelated yet connected to the event somehow. The human brain is complex and capable of networking many criterions to any given event, like the smell of mustard while eating a hotdog at the ballpark–the smell of mustard may later cause a person to remember a time they were at a ballpark. Similarly, during the EMDR process, the brain recalls many associated factors of the event and begins reorganizing them in order for the event to become more functional and not upsetting or triggering. What’s wonderful about EMDR is that we don’t have to know exactly why or how all of the associations are networked the way that they are, as long as the memory becomes increasingly adaptive, functional, and absent of distressing material. At the end of a 90-minute session, clients often refer to the formerly distressing event as “just a picture, now” or “just something that happened that I’m not chained to anymore”. This is a treatment approach that many clinicians find useful to add to their tool box when an issue occurs that can’t seem to “un-stick” itself with some of the more traditional methods used in standard practice. It is a tremendously effective and powerful intervention with which many people who seek mental health services have found success; they come to live with a greater sense of ease and freedom from events that formerly kept them from happy lives and healthy relationships.
To find out more about how EMDR is used in treatment at Chrysalis, or how EMDR may benefit your daughter, contact us at 888-317-9297 or visit chrysalisschoolmontana.com.
By: Haley Kliefoth, MA, LCPC, NCC