EMDR Therapy - Edmonton Psychologist

Edmonton psychologists and therapists may provide Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing or EMDR therapy.  EMDR is a well researched therapeutic approach that is recommended by the American Veterans Association, American Psychological Association, and the World Health Organization for treating trauma, and in particular Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).  Posttraumatic Stress Disorder is a severe, chronic, pervasive and (affecting most areas of one's life) response to trauma. 

EMDR may also be effective in treating:

  • Low Self-Confidence
  • Performance Anxiety
  • Pain Management
  • Acute Stress Disorder
  • Anxiety
  • Depression Due to Trauma
  • Sleep Difficulties
  • Panic Attacks
  • Social Phobia
  • Self-Esteem
  • Addiction

The definition of a trauma experience is entirely personal.  What causes one person anxiety or distress may not be noticed by other people.  If, for example, you are anxious about talking with your boss, or worry a lot about what could go wrong, you are triggering a degree of stress or trauma response in your body and your mind.  While many people are able to recover on their own from this experience, for some, the negatively charged emotional experience seems to "stick".  Research has not been able to determine why one experience sticks and not another.  There is some thought that childhood exposure to trauma/significant stress, may make a person more susceptible to developing mental health issues including PTSD later in life.

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Once the trauma memory hooks into the brain, it can be triggered by a wide range of things.  Certain sounds, smells, locations, images, or thoughts spark the trauma memory.  When the memory is activated a person may feel like 'it is all happening again', or 'I can't move on because it keeps coming back'.  Individuals who are unable to resolve their trauma may become hyper-vigalent, easily angered, have sleeping difficulties, experience lack of motivation and reduced self-confidence, worry a lot or have panic attacks, feel chronically unsettled, and may become difficult to live with. 

So Why Are Trauma Memories Special?

Memory works in stages.  When memory works correctly only 'the facts' are stored, and not the emotion.  Trauma memories are created in stress situations when the brain stores both 'the facts' and the emotion.  As a result, when a person recalls a trauma memory, they remember not only what happened, but also re-experience the original emotion.  EMDR appears to work by rebooting the memory process so that the memory and not the emotion is stored for future recall.  Many people find they can 'remember it happened' or will say that they 'know it happened', but that the event does not bother them any more following EMDR therapy.

So What Happens in an EMDR Session?

There are multiple stages to EMDR treatment.  In the first stage the psychologist will take some history.  You do not need to tell them details about the trauma unless you want to.  Based on the information you provide, the therapist may make several treatment suggestions, with EMDR being one possibility.  The psychologist will explain the known benefits and risks of each potential treatment option.  If both you and the therapist agree EMDR is a good choice, then the psychologist will help you develop a 'calm space'. 

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The 'calm space' is a mental location drawn from a real or imagined place.  Time will likely be spent practicing visualizing the calm space.  You and the therapist will then identify the treatment target.   This target may be a major or minor trauma, or memory that triggers anxiety or distress.  After the selected event is identified the psychologist will begin helping you to reprocess the event.

Reprocessing involves you recalling the event (or distressing emotion) while being distracted.  The distraction may be watching the clinician's hand movements, following a moving light with you eyes, or noticing the feel of hand held buzzers.  Which distraction technique is used will depend on your comfort and the clinician's practice style.  For example, individual's who have eye dificulties may prefer a tactile distraction, while others prefer watching the light move works best for them.  After several minutes of therapy many people report that they are no longer emotionally triggered by the memory.  Your psychologist is trained in a variety of techniques to ensure the process does not overwhelm the you. 

While some distressing memories will resolve within a single session, it is not unusual that time constraints halt the memory reprocessing before it is fully complete.  A psychologist EMDR therapist has a variety of techniques to ensure that you are able to contain and safely store away the difficult memories until the next session.  Judging how much time in a session needs to be given to memory processing and how much to memory containment is a part of the therapist's expertise. 

How Many Sessions Does it Take?

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EMDR is the recommended treatment for trauma and associated distress such as anxiety and panic attacks.  Research shows that 84-90% of individuals with a single event trauma or mild anxiety no longer have the anxious symptoms / PTSD after 2-3 sessions.  For individuals with complex trauma (e.g. history of childhood abuse/neglect, domestic violence, repeated exposure to trauma events as an adult, etc...) or more severe anxiety, 5-10 sessions may be necessary.  You will know if EMDR will work for you after only a couple of sessions.

Often current emotional triggers are linked to historical stressors.  This can be both a positive and negative.  Sometimes processing one trauma will cause a client to recall other distressing evens that then also require treatment.  At other times, successful reduction of one anxiety may resolve associated anxieties, resulting in wide ranging gains in mental health. 

The actual mechanics of EMDR are not fully understood.  Even so, people who have had a psychologist administer EMDR therapy to them say that they are not sure what has changed, but that they feel better, and people around them notice the positive shift.

Karin is an Edmonton EMDR psychologist