Setting down the phone after an interview with Georgetown Psychology’s Patricia Dean,  LCSW, I felt in awe of therapists’ abilities to help us navigate the winding corridors of the human brain. Dean had just taught me about EMDR, a therapeutic technique for processing traumatic events and which can also be used to help alleviate anxiety. EMDR was founded in the eighties by a psychologist named Francine Shapiro. This psychologist had been ruminating on a disturbing thought, one of those haunting sorts that make you feel stuck. She watched birds fly back and forth across the sky before her while absorbed in thought. After a while, she noticed something strange: the thought she’d been troubled by was still in her mind but the feelings attached to it had gone away. What, she thought, could have made that happen?

The answer led her to discover EMDR… but we’ll pick back up with her story later on.

What is EMDR?

Dean has a metaphor she uses to explain EMDR to first time clients. She tells them that their traumatic memory or anxiety-provoking thought is like a ball of wax that has objects lodged in it. Whenever you squish the ball of wax, the objects prick you and they hurt. You learn to grow afraid of the ball of wax, to try to avoid it, but the objects lodged inside it want to get out and so you can’t totally avoid it because it keeps rattling around your brain trying to get your attention. The ball of wax represents your memory and the objects stuck inside of it are the various painful emotions this memory makes you feel. 

“For most people,” says Dean about traumatic memories, “it’s the emotions that are really bothersome, it’s not typically the memory itself.“

EMDR is like holding a hair dryer to the ball of wax to gently warm it. As the hot air blows over the wax, it warms and loosens up its grip on the objects inside. One by one, they simply fall out. First, out falls a pin — that one had hurt particularly badly when it would prick you. But now that it’s out of the wax you and your therapist can take a moment to examine it and then put it away. Then, out falls a hair barrette, and you put it away. Next, a toy soldier, and a monopoly piece. Now that all the objects have fallen out of the wax, the wax hardens again. Only now, it’s just wax, just a memory. All that was stuck inside of it, causing pain, is gone. 

In what situations is EMDR most helpful?

EMDR is primarily used to help clients process traumatic events. When trauma goes unprocessed, it’s like it gets its claws deep into your psyche — it stays with you and causes pain. For many people, the pain impacts their ability to experience their daily life, build healthy relationships, or focus. The earlier a traumatic event is processed, the better, but EMDR can help release the claws of a trauma at any point in a person’s life. It is also used to treat anxious feelings and phobias.

One of the most advantageous things about EMDR is that it’s an effective form of therapy if talking about an event, memory, or feeling is too painful. If you or a loved one is experiencing emotions that cannot be verbalized, this form of treatment can offer comfort and long term relief. 

“Sometimes people can’t access the traumatic memory for whatever reason,” Dean told me. “In EMDR, you don’t actually have to sit and tell me what the memory is. If you have an anxious child who does not want to talk about the anxiety, then EMDR is great. We can just process the emotion.”

How does it work?

Remember the psychologist who was troubled during her lunch break? Turns out that the relief she experienced came from the bird-watching. While she watched the birds, her eyes moved back and forth from side to side, much as they would when you follow the ball during a tennis match. 

The only other time of day when your body naturally produces this bi-lateral eye movement is during REM sleep. REM (Rapid Eye Movement) is the stage of sleep when dreaming happens. From brain image scans, we know that during REM a small piece of your brain called the processing center turns on. REM is pretty much the only thing that lights up this part of the brain — unless, that is, you mimic the back and forth eye movements. 

Mimicking the eye movements manually switches on the brain’s process center. This, along with a series of guided questions, is at the heart of EMDR therapy. Over a handful of sessions, a therapist works with their client to locate the memory or feeling they want to work on. Then, they meet over a series of weeks to use the eye movements and questions to process the memory or feeling.

Does it really work? 

EMDR has been proven again and again to be very effective for working with trauma and alleviating the symptoms of PTSD. It can be very helpful as a stand alone form of therapy or used in conjunction with other forms of therapy, such as talk therapy or CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) or DBT (dialectical behavioral therapy). 

It’s something you should only do with a trained professional, as it can lead you down a rabbit hole as you explore the memory. The therapist is like the rope a diver ties around their waist while exploring the ocean, always leading them back to the surface if for some reason they get turned around. 

Sometimes, says Dean, “parents watch their children deal with anxiety that, to them, is unexplainable. They don’t understand it, they don’t know what’s going on with their child. For that parent, EMDR might be something that works really well.” 

There are trained EMDR professionals at Georgetown Psychology who are ready to help. Find them here.