3 Experts Tell You Everything You Need to Know About EMDR

EMDR is a style of therapy commonly used to treat trauma. We asked three experts to give us their guide to EMDR. Here's what they had to say...

Dr. Maritsa Yzaguirre-Kelley
Founder at Obtaining Mastery

About Dr. Maritsa Yzaguirre-Kelley:

My name is Dr. Maritsa Yzaguirre-Kelley. I am a licensed mental health counselor, masters addictions professional, certified in EMDR, anger management, hypnosis, eft, NLP, and time techniques. I have been working in the field of Mental Health for close to 20 years. In my practice I see clients as well as train clinicians, and do community out reach to educate the community on mental health, substance use disorders, drug trends, and prevention.

What is EMDR?

EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy. 

EMDR is used in individual therapy with a client and the EMDR therapist and is typically delivered one to two times per week the amount of sessions depends on how the client is responding. 

EMDR differs from talk therapy CBT, solution focused therapies, and other therapies because EMDR therapy focuses directly on the memory, and is intended to change the way that the memory is stored in the brain, thus reducing and eliminating the problematic symptoms. So one of the things I like to say to a client its like we are being gifted a time machine for the mind. I can't take away the experience, but we can change the way the client experiences the memory. We face it, embrace it, and replace it. 

During EMDR therapy, clinical observations suggest that an accelerated learning process is stimulated by EMDR’s standardized procedures, which incorporate the use of eye movements and other forms of rhythmic left-right (bilateral) stimulation (e.g., tones or taps). While clients briefly focus on the trauma memory and simultaneously experience bilateral stimulation (BLS), the vividness and emotion of the memory are reduced.

Who should get EMDR?

When making recommendations for types of treatment that a client will best benefit from I would say that would be up to the treating clinician. It's hard to know who will do what when until you actually start working with them. If a client for instance has a secondary gain meaning their behavior or trauma is somewhat benefiting them they probably will show little to no improvement until that underlying issue is taken care of. EMDR is great for anyone who has underlying issues they haven't yet worked through. It has shown to be very beneficial with people who have had trauma, PTSD, and critical incident work. 

A personal story about EMDR:

I had a client who I was seeing that had underlying trauma and had been self medicating with drugs and alcohol for a number of years. Client ended up going to a drug and alcohol treatment center and I started working with them after a week of being substance free. The client was having nightmares and feelings of worthlessness. The client stated that they had been in therapy for a number of years after a traumatic experience and NOTHING had worked except the drugs and alcohol. Client admitted that this is typically the time they leave treatment because the body feels better, they had a few nights of a warm show, and hot food, but the emotions and nightmares come back. The first session was really a meet and greet where we got to know each other. I went back the next day to see the client and start the EMDR and at the end of the first session the client was in tears. Client stated that it was the first time they were able to get through a session without becoming physically ill by the memory. After 4 sessions of EMDR client felt no attachment to the emotion and feels ready to move on. This is just one of the many EMDR success stories I have.

Christine Muska, MA, LMFT
Birmingham Maple Clinic

About Christine Muska, MA LMFT

I am a Licensed Marriage and Family therapist and work in the Metro Detroit area. I have BS/MS in Experimental Psychology from Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia.

I received a Master degree in Human Development and Family Studies (Marriage and Family Therapy) from the University of Connecticut.

I work with adolescents, adults, individuals, couple, and families. My two main areas of focus on in trauma and eating disorders.

What is EMDR?

When something disturbing or traumatic happens to us, it can get stored in the brain in a way that can cause feelings of chaos and being out of control of one’s own mind. After a trauma, a person may think about it when they don’t want to, have feelings of being on alert looking out for the potential that the bad thing will happen again, or that it actually feels as if it is happening in the current time, event though the event is long over.

EMDR (Eye movement desensitization reprocessing) works by using bilateral stimulation (e.g. hand movement across the body, hand pulsars, or via a light bar) to help a person consciously understand that the bad thing they went through is no longer occurring. It helps shift the memory into a more adaptive place in the brain, so the person and understands it is over and they are resilient.The mechanism used is similar to what occurs in REM sleep, so when we have had a bad day, sleep on it, we awake feeling as if that bad thing no longer bothers us.That is similar to what a person feels after going through EMDR.

EMDR helps transfer the negative memory to a more suitable place in the brain, where the person can start to feel that event is truly over and is no longer causing chaos in his or her life. It is a model that posits we have what we need already in us to heal, and EMDR just facilitates that natural process.

Who should get EMDR?

If a person is experiencing flashbacks (re-living the memory as if it is happening again) of a trauma, intrusive thinking (thinking about it when they don’t want to), having avoidant behaviors (avoiding people, places, or things that are reminders of the trauma), changes in mood, sleep, nightmares, and/or hypervigilance, EMDR would be a good fit. There is also emerging research showing its efficacy with depression, anxiety, phobias, and eating disorders.

The model is flexible and is suitable for all ages. A consultation with a trained EMDR therapist is needed to determine if a person is ready for EMDR.

A personal story about EMDR:

I had a 22 year old female client come to me for EMDR as she was having sleep difficulties, intrusive thoughts, difficulty with physical touch with her husband, fearful of being alone with men, anxious, and sad. Outside of this, she was a successful small business owner with loving family and friends.

During her assessment it was uncovered that her uncle had sexually abused her from the time she was in kindergarten until third grade. He had convinced her that he loved her, and that it was their “secret.” The uncle was reported to police, but people had asked her why she didn’t speak up earlier.

The client came to me because she wanted to try to have a baby, but couldn’t face having sex with her husband. The patient described intense guilt about being a “bad wife.”The idea that that she wouldn’t be able to have sex with her husband or have a baby, left her with significant depressed and anxious feelings.

I met with this client of total 14 sessions, 12 EMDR reprocessing sessions. We focused on the worst memory for her and her negative belief “I can’t trust others,” as well as “I am to blame” related to the the memory of being questioned by family. By the end of treatment, this client was able to freely have sex without have a freezing response, crying, or avoiding it all together. The client realized she can trust others, and that what her uncle had done to her was not her fault because she was just a child. The client described feeling more in control of her life and able to manage her feelings. She even told me, while blushing, that sex with her husband had now become fun.

Adina Mahalli, MSWFounder at Enlightened Reality

About Adina Mahalli, MSW:

My name is Adina Mahalli and I am a certified Social Worker (MSW). My clinical practice, Enlightened Reality, focuses on empowering individuals to overcome anxiety by attacking its underlying issues and helping to rehabilitate unhealthy lifestyles.

I live with my husband and our daughter in Farmingdale, NJ.

What is EMDR?

EMDR is a nontraditional type of Psychotherapy. It stands for Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing. It is meant to help treat people with post-traumatic stress disorder. The therapy doesn’t involve talking to someone or medications. It uses the person’s own rapid eye movements to decrease the strength of the emotionally charged memories.

The sessions last about 90 minutes. The therapist will have the patient follow with their own eyes the therapist's hand gestures. At that same time, the therapist will have you talk about a disturbing event. The therapist will then gradually lead you to happy thoughts. They may use musical tones like tapping their hand or toes.

Who should get EMDR?

EMDR can be beneficial for people who suffer from panic attacks, addictions, anxiety, and eating disorders. If someone wants to try a safe and non-invasive way to treat any of these psychological problems, then EDMR could be for them.

Share your EMDR story.

If EMDR has helped you or someone you love, please share your story in the comments below.