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Helping Our Brains Heal with EMDR

February 10, 2020

Emma Steiner, MSW, MFT, LCSW, works with individuals and couples at our University City office. Read on to learn about EMDR and Emma’s experience with this form of therapy. 

EMDR eye

Recently, I joined 14 of my Council colleagues at the first weekend of EMDR training. EMDR or Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing is an information processing therapy that is new in the last 30 years, evidence-based, and has recently been becoming better known by the general public thanks to celebrities and TV shows.

The underlying concept of EMDR is that when we experience traumatic events, both the kind that risk our lives (big “T” trauma) and the kind that threaten our sense of self (small “t” trauma), the memories get stored in remote parts of our brains and are cut off from healthier and more adaptive memories. The traumatic memories get stored with all of the emotion and stimuli specific to the time and place of the experience. These unprocessed memories are triggered and pop-up into consciousness without warning, and at times that make little sense. My favorite concept that informs EMDR is that the brain’s goal is to process and heal. Just as our body wants to heal a cut, our brain wants to work through our painful memories to move us towards health. The theorists posit that sometimes the flashbacks, or intense emotional reactions we have, are our brains stalling out as they attempt to process a memory. I love the idea that our brains want good things for us, and that EMDR is a way for us to help our brains help us.

If a memory, when triggered, makes us blush, cringe, cry, or think negative thoughts about ourselves, EMDR developer Francine Shapiro believes that is likely an unprocessed memory, and so stuck in the form it was in when we originally had the negative experience. In EMDR, we identify the target memories for work, recall them in the form of an image, identify the associated bodily sensations, negative thoughts and painful emotions, along with a positive cognition that we would prefer to believe, and then begin to follow the therapist’s finger from side-to-side with our eyes. The rapid eye movement is thought to be similar to REM sleep, and leads to the repeated stimulation of each side of the brain, one after the other. As we engage in this bi-lateral brain stimulation, new thoughts, sensations, images, memories, and feelings begin to come up. The EMDR therapist stops moving his or her finger and asks what came up, and then returns to the finger/eye movements. This process repeats and repeats, as the memory becomes less isolated and begins to connect to other memories, creating a new network. Eventually, nothing new comes up and the memory is processed. In that processing, our negative beliefs about ourselves dissipate and the positive and more adaptive cognitions become associated with the memory. The new thoughts bring comfort and we experience relief. For many, that relief can come very rapidly with EMDR.

I am so excited to continue building my skills with EMDR and seeing how quickly my clients feel better when using this technique. In addition to our group currently in training, Council has 11 additional therapists previously trained in EMDR. I feel very lucky and proud to be a part of this organization that has 25 therapists on staff, all trained to do this powerful and innovative therapy.


If you would like to make an appointment with Emma Steiner, email her at esteiner@councilforrelationships.org or call her at 215-382-6680 ext. 4279.