When I started my career as a therapist, I wanted to immediately master the craft and ensure that the people who I work with actually felt better. I know what a serious commitment therapy is emotionally, financially, and time-wise. Not only did I want my clients to feel better, I wanted them to experience the benefits of therapy as quickly as possible. Traditionally, therapy is a lengthy process as it is based upon the healing power of relationships. And as we all know, relationships take time to develop. I received a lot of valuable feedback from supervisors in the beginning, insisting that I slow down, trust the process, and let the benefits of therapy unfold over time. I do wholeheartedly agree with this sentiment but...
I was intrigued when I learned about Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) Therapy. It took many beliefs I held about psychotherapy and tossed them out the window. Some studies showed that clients reported significant improvements from their symptoms in just one session. I could not help but think, "Is this real?"
I had been studying trauma for six years when I stumbled upon EMDR, and after reading research articles, perusing blogs, and listening to podcasts from respected therapists, I signed up for the 40-hour training. It was one of the best decisions I have made in my career.
I would like to share with you the heart of EMDR--the Adaptive Information Processing (AIP) model--to help you understand why I am so passionate about EMDR therapy. The AIP model was developed to explain how EMDR works so quickly and efficiently as a type of therapy for helping people heal from a variety of symptoms and mental health conditions. If you are unfamiliar with EMDR, please click here to learn more.
The Four Main Tenets of the Adaptive Information Processing (AIP) Model
1. Mental health conditions are linked to the way we remember earlier life experiences.
The AIP model is founded on the basic assumption that mental health conditions, or pathologies, sprout from earlier life experiences that were scary, threatening, unpredictable, and/or disturbing. As a child, you have feelings, thoughts, and actions about what happened. You are trying to make sense of something that happened that adults may not even understand. So your thoughts and feelings are left hanging, or in therapy lingo, never fully processed, leaving them “stuck.”
This reaction to an earlier life experience begins a lifetime pattern of feelings, thoughts, and actions. These patterns ultimately compose a set of beliefs about the self that are negative, unhelpful, and cause suffering. For instance, maybe you decide that this bad thing happened because of you and that it’s your fault.
These early experiences still impact you today because something happens in the present that activates the feelings, thoughts, and beliefs connected to your earlier memories. Since the memories are stuck in your brain, because they could not be made sense of, the negative feelings and beliefs you have about yourself (e.g., “It’s my fault”) take over in any given moment when you are reminded of the bad thing that happened.
2. Our brains are great at processing information most of the time and this can help us move forward after trauma.
The brain is able to process information consistently and with ease throughout our lifetime. We make sense of an abundant amount of information. It is when this system is down, and our brains cannot process the “stuck” memories, that our mental health is impacted.
Lucky for us, EMDR can turn on the brain’s ability to heal. One major contribution of Francine Shapiro’s work is that EMDR can stimulate healing in the brain in a similar fashion to how the body can heal a physical injury.
During EMDR, the brain can access the "bad stuff” (i.e., earlier memories that are disturbing) and the "good stuff” (e.g., a positive world view, your ability to cope) at the same time. It can take the positive, adaptive thoughts and feelings and apply that to process, or make sense of, the old disturbing memories. Therefore, any pathology can change because it is just a matter of reprocessing, or revisiting, the information that is stuck and storing it somewhere new.
Let’s look at one client’s story to see how this comes into action. Jill’s* parents used to have heated fights when she was a child. Her parents thought she was sleeping during the arguments but instead, Jill would stand with her ear pressed against her bedroom door, listening to every word. Sometimes she would hear something being thrown against the wall and shattering. Other times, it was the sound of the front door slamming followed by a car speeding off. Jill never knew when these blow ups were going to happen and she would anxiously wait as long as she could every night to see if one would start.
Jill felt scared that one of her parents were going to get hurt during these fights or leave and never come back. She would hear her name once in a while in the yelling and felt like it must be her fault that her parents argued like that. These early memories of family conflict were hard to make sense of as a young child and became stuck in Jill’s brain because they were never processed. It was impossible for her brain to organize these intense thoughts, feelings, and body sensations.
As an adult, Jill often felt she was responsible for events in her life that were completely out of her control. She would feel scared and anxious whenever little things reminded her of what happened, like a door slamming shut or someone raising their voice. Although Jill was no longer a child in a helpless situation, she felt exactly that whenever conflict came up in her relationships. Jill would do anything she possibly could to avoid confrontation.
3. You can transform the way you see yourself after reprocessing the earlier, bad memories.
As a result of reprocessing the disturbing information you picked up from earlier memories, you experience a shift in your thoughts, actions, and feelings--leading to new beliefs about yourself and maybe even a change in your identity. Once you start feeling better, you naturally begin making decisions that are healthy and create a more fulfilling life.
Let's check in on Jill to illustrate how this process can occur. As an adult, Jill went to therapy because she felt unhappy in her romantic relationship and taken advantage of by her friends. Jill felt like it was her fault that her partner did not show affection or express his feelings. With her friends, Jill would always be the one to organize gatherings, take care of people when they were sick, and listen during times of crisis. She felt good about showing up for her friends, but also drained by the amount of energy she put into her friendships.
Jill found EMDR therapy difficult at first because she had to think about those childhood memories that she became really good to never thinking about. But, in just one session, Jill had a better understanding of how those early memories were connected to her current problems. By the end of therapy, Jill had empathy for the little girl who had to experience her parents fighting. She was able to use the positive, adaptive parts of her brain to see how there was no way her parents’ fighting was her fault.
Jill was able to reprocess the bad memories and no longer hold the belief about herself “It’s my fault.” Instead, she believed “I was just a kid.” This realization led to a new, deeper understanding of herself. She felt invigorated and started making decisions in her current relationships that helped them become more reciprocal and fulfilling. Jill began expressing her feelings and ask for what she needed from her partner. She set boundaries and realized when she was giving too much in her friendships. There was less pressure to deal with life's tribulations on her own and she could lean on others when she needed some support.
4. Healing takes way less time than we thought!
Decades of research studying the treatment outcomes of EMDR show that healing from trauma takes way less time than has been traditionally assumed, regardless of how many years have passed since the traumatic or disturbing event. Shapiro (2018) wrote, “Some controlled studies have indicated that 84-100% of single-trauma PTSD has been eliminated within 4.5 hours of treatment” ( p. 18).
Back to Jill, she was in therapy for about a year. She finished EMDR in three months and then decided she wanted to spend time getting to know the “new Jill.” It is common for a client to want to practice their new way of being in relationship with their therapist. Us therapists are the perfect person to practice new skills on, like asserting oneself or asking for help.
As a therapist who values treatment that supports clients in feeling happy, healthy, and free, EMDR was an incredible gift. I still believe that the relationship between therapist and client is paramount to healing. EMDR enhances this unique relationship and makes the work together deeply transformational.
*Jill is not a real client. Her story is inspired by a range of client experiences.
Shapiro, F. (2018). Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy: Basic principles, protocols, and procedures. Guilford Publications.