Using EMDR to Release the Past

EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, which is an integrative therapeutic method that helps people heal from trauma and other challenging life experiences. Extensively researched, EMDR has proven to be an effective approach to healing both single incident and long-standing traumatic experiences, such as sexual, physical, and emotional abuse, combat experiences, major surgeries, serious accidents, and natural disasters. For this reason, EMDR is used by many therapists to support individuals who have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or complex PTSD.

EMDR is also effective with helping people resolve painful past experiences that many would not classify as traumatic. It’s important to remember that less dramatic life experiences can sometimes cause more painful symptoms than major traumas, such as having a difficult relationship with a parent throughout one’s childhood.

EMDR can also help to resolve phobias, strengthen positive beliefs and memories, and support performance enhancement in several fields, such as school, work, sports, and public speaking.

What is involved during an EMDR session?

An EMDR session involves selecting a memory and noticing what images, thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations are connected with that event. While the client is focusing on this memory, bilateral (back and forth) stimulation is used to process and integrate the event. The forms of bilateral movement that are used in EMDR are moving the eyes back and forth, holding hand pieces that vibrate back and forth, and/or listening to bilateral sound through headphones.

While a client is noticing all the components of a memory and using bilateral stimulation, they are then asked to allow the mind to go wherever it naturally goes, and to just notice what happens much like watching the scenery pass on a moving train. During this process, the chosen memory and the belief systems that go along with it (i.e., I am unsafe, I am unlovable, I am powerless) become desensitized, which means that they no longer negatively affect the client.

How does EMDR work?

When a person experiences a disturbing event, or many hurtful events over time, biological and neurochemical changes may cause it to get “stuck” in the brain and nervous system. The memory stays in the brain in its original state, along with the corresponding emotions, body sensations, and negative beliefs that went along with it. This leads people to get triggered by current experiences that resemble the original memory in some way, which involves feeling the same way they did when the disturbing event occurred. In short, unresolved memories prevent people from being able to discern the past from the present.

When this happens, EMDR is able to kick-start an accelerated natural healing process that allows the memory to successfully move into the past. Since traumatic memory is stored in the right (emotional) hemisphere of the brain, the bilateral stimulation involved with EMDR helps the psyche to process past experiences in a more adaptable way so that the left and right sides of the brain can become integrated and the mind/body can return to a state of balance. With the help of EMDR, people are able to hold old memories without the disturbing feelings that were previously connected to them. EMDR also empowers people to cultivate self-love, release grief, and live more fully in the present.

For example, if a girl was raised in a home with an alcoholic father who became aggressive and angry when he drank, the experience of feeling terrified, tense, and powerless in this unsafe home environment could possibly get stuck in her brain and nervous system because it continued for years without resolution. As this girl transitions into adulthood, it’s likely that present day experiences that resemble the original memories would trigger her.

Specifically, she may feel the same emotions (terror), body sensations (tension), and negative beliefs (I am powerless) when she encounters people who are aggressive and angry. Although it would be appropriate to feel unsafe around someone acting this way, it’s no longer true that this woman is powerless. She is an adult now and can take steps to sufficiently meet her needs for safety, which she was not able to do as a child. EMDR could help this woman process the original experience of living with her father as a child so that the memories could successfully move into the past.

This would allow the woman to respond differently to people who reminded her of her father. Instead of feeling terrified, tense, and powerless, she would have the capacity to be assertive and set clear boundaries to ensure her safety (which may look like avoiding contact with these people altogether). She would know that the past is over and that she’s a capable adult who can handle the situation.

As a trained EMDR therapist, I have seen this therapeutic method help people release painful experiences from the past and take important steps forward in feeling more free, authentic, and alive. If you think EMDR could be helpful to you and would like to learn more, please feel free to contact me to schedule a complimentary 30-minute phone consultation.

With love & gratitude ~ Erin Stohl

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About the writer: Erin Stohl

Guided by the path of the heart, Erin supports others on the journey of remembering their True Self. She combines traditional, somatic, and spiritual psychotherapy with energy work, nutrition support and other mindfulness-based practices.

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