Getting Unstuck with EMDR
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, EMDR, has helped millions of people find relief from distress and misery over the last 20+ years, but I’m still amazed that it is often unknown and misunderstood. In my clinical practice, I’ve found it to be the most effective therapeutic modality that I use to help clients, whether I’m working with individuals, couples or families, and regardless of age, gender or culture. EMDR is oftentimes only thought of as a treatment for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) that occurs with such catastrophic circumstances as sexual abuse, physical abuse or military combat. While it is highly effective in those cases, with a great deal of empirical evidence, it’s also very effective and evidence supported for many other situations, such as: anxiety, phobias, addictions, relational issues, grief, attachment, stress reduction, phantom limb pain and performance.
In essence, EMDR is a way to process negative unconscious emotional memories, using bilateral stimulation (eye movements, alternating tones, taps or vibrations). Unconscious emotional memories are ones we have never processed successfully, possibly because they were overwhelming at the time. Maybe we were too young to have the experience make sense. Often, these memories will be buried deep. You may not even remember them because they are unconscious, but the reprocessing will sort them out automatically. The reason this happens in such a natural and effective way, is that the brain seems to want to convert negatives to positives, or at least neutrals. We all retain negatives longer than positives. Negative thoughts, fears and worries often kept us and our ancestors alive. They are unquestionably more helpful to survival. Which seemed more important to our ancestor’s continuation; how beautiful a snake is or how deadly it might be if we come into contact with it? Which predecessor is more likely gone from our gene pool? While we probably don’t contact many snakes these days, we all have contacted negative experiences. A key aspect of EMDR therapy is that it elicits more positive information out of these episodes as they are reprocessed and accurately assesses negative information.
Why doesn’t it happen by itself without EMDR? Why doesn’t the processing of the event just occur over time? It might. If the emotional experience does not overwhelm your ability to adaptively handle the situation, then you will probably process it on your own, over time. But if you can’t sort out the event, you’ll likely get stuck in some phase of that experience, reoccurring the negative incident. It may not manifest itself as dramatically as a flashback, but a trigger might induce feelings of fear, shame, sadness or anger that come over you so quickly those emotions may be attributed to an immediate situation. Maybe when you’re alone, maybe dealing with some aspect of work, or maybe with your partner.
Let’s just focus on conflict in a relationship, as an example. You and your partner might be having difficulty communicating because too many discussions turn to fights. The fights flair up almost immediately, especially on those recurring “sore” subjects which most couples tend to have. Neither party seems able to listen, neither party wants to calm down and the issue is never resolved. Maybe the new fight becomes the issue. You may know many different stress and anger management techniques, but the application of those seems impossible. Your knowledge fails you. You may intend to take a time out and lower the reactivity, but you can’t stop yourself from arguing on. That last word will make your point, change their position, settle the issue. Does it get you anywhere but frustrated and annoyed? Probably not. I think this scenario epitomizes the unproductive and repetitive cycle of many couples in conflict. Until the underlying issues are addressed, this clashing choreography will be perpetuated. Even if you think there are no hidden matters and you know exactly why you’re fighting, there are probably some underlying issues. Sooner or later, we do see them. I’ve rarely worked with a couple who were only really arguing simply about money, sex, kids, etc.
Try this little experiment from Francine Shapiro, the originator and developer of EMDR. In her great new self-help book, Getting Past Your Past, Self Help techniques from EMDR Therapy, she describes a simple exercise. Sit in a quiet place and take a deep breath. Register how your feeling, physically and emotionally. Now quietly out loud or to yourself say, ” yes, yes, yes, yes” for 45 seconds. See how you feel. Take a deep breath. Now repeat saying “no, no, no, no” for 45 seconds. How do you feel? Most people will have a different response from the two phrases. Those responses demonstrate an aspect of unconscious emotional recall to those two simple words. Which felt more comfortable? Did either feel troublesome? Did any physical shifts of feeling occur, like tenseness or aches? The aim is not to upset you, but to make you aware that things just come up, not only cognitively, but physically and emotionally. They are all interconnected. Think about the last quarrel you and your partner had. Focus on the feelings and physical sensations, not the dialogue or issue. EMDR can help process those unconscious emotions and feelings, allowing you to really concentrate on solving the issue. Wouldn’t it be great to know that you’re really working on the important issues to you and your partner, and not being driven by unconscious past events and emotions?
Dr. Shapiro’s book is a great place to start to examine those concealed unprocessed experiences. Sometimes more help is required, especially if those experiences are very upsetting. Council for Relationships has more practicing EMDR experts than most agencies in the U.S. and certainly the most with expertise in applying the technique to couples issues. While we also work frequently with individuals, it’s the application of this technique to relationships that makes us unique. If you’ve tried other approaches and continue to feel stuck, consider trying EMDR therapy to get yourself unstuck. I regularly collaborate with therapists to utilize EMDR to help their clients move through particular sticking points, as do many of my colleagues. If you have questions if this therapy might be helpful, just contact one of Council’s many EMDR therapists.
Raymond McDevitt, MSS, LCSW is a former Senior Staff Therapist at Council for Relations’ Center City office.