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Understanding What Actually Happens in EMDR Therapy

EMDR Therapy: Breaking Down the Barriers

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) was originally discovered to work with clients who have a history of trauma and have been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) however over the years it is becoming integrated into treatment for other disorders such as eating disorders, substance abuse disorders, complicated grief, panic disorder, dissociative disorders and many other disorders that have a trauma component associated with them. EMDR is a foreign concept to many individuals who have not entered treatment and this type of therapy is becoming more common in many treatment centers. EMDR is a specialized therapy that requires specific certification and licensing therefore not all therapists practice this type of therapy. Most reputable eating disorder centers have at least one therapist who is specialized in EMDR and can work with clients to uncover their traumatic triggers associated with their eating disorder.

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Risks & Complications

The medical complications associated with anorexia and other eating disorders can be extensive and if left untreated, can be irreversible. Eating disorders affect every organ system in the body. Complications of anorexia include:

How does EMDR work?

Most individuals wonder what actually occurs in a typical EMDR session. There are eight phases of treatment and the initial one focuses on taking a thorough client history followed by a preparation stage. In the Rapid Eye Movement portion, the client focuses on a troubling memory and identifies the belief he has about himself connected to this negative memory (for example, in dealing with rape, the person may believe “I am dirty”). The individual then formulates a positive belief that he would like to have about himself (“I am a worthwhile and good person in control of my life.”). All the physical sensations and emotions that accompany the memory are identified. The individual then goes over the memory while focusing on an external stimulus that creates bilateral (side to side) eye movement. This is most often achieved by watching the therapist moving a finger. After each set of bilateral movements, the individual is asked how he feels. This process continues until the memory is no longer disturbing.

The individual is processing the trauma with both hemispheres of the brain stimulated. The chosen positive belief is then installed, via bilateral movement, to replace the negative one. Each session normally lasts for about one hour. It is believed that EMDR works because the “bilateral stimulation” by-passes the area of the brain that has become stuck due to the trauma and is preventing the left side of the brain from self-soothing the right side of the brain.

During this procedure, clients tend to “process” the memory in a way that leads to a peaceful resolution. This often results in increased insight regarding both previously disturbing events and long-held negative thoughts about the self that have grown out of the original traumatic event. For example, an assault victim may come to realize that he was not to blame for what happened, he is now safe, that the event is really over, and, as a result, he can regain a general sense of safety in his world.

Trauma in relation to eating disorders

According to studies, individuals who experience some form of trauma are more likely to develop eating disorders than those who lack a history of trauma. 63 percent of individuals with anorexia nervosa and 57 percent with bulimia nervosa report a history of trauma. When trauma occurs the brain does not process the event properly. The trauma is buried in the unconscious mind and can be triggered again in the present. Eating disorder behaviors can begin as a way to avoid the thoughts and feelings of the past traumatic event.

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