When first presented, EMDR may seem like an exotic treatment option. For those of us accustomed to the common conception of therapy as a long, in-depth discussion of one’s life, the idea that eye movements can aid in the processing of painful memories may seem downright bizarre.
But how much verbal exchange occurs during EMDR? How much of a time commitment is it compared to traditional talk therapy? Potential participants often have questions about the nature and length of the conversations that will be required of them during this process. You might be surprised by the response.
There is some talking involved in EMDR therapy, but significantly less than in traditional psychotherapy. The focus of EMDR is on accepting and acknowledging the presence of whatever memories, ideas, or emotions arise. If the client is feeling uncomfortable discussing specifics of traumatic experiences, they do not have to.
A reminder that not all therapists are qualified to administer EMDR. If you are looking for an expert we recommend trying Betterhelp or similar program where you will find several EMDR therapists at the fraction of the cost of offline EMDR sessions. You can start by filling out the form to be matched with a therapist.
It is this process of remaining mindful of one’s internal experience, whilst also focusing on the outer stimulus of the therapist’s hand moving from left to right, that EMDR is thought to derive it’s power from in helping clients process difficult memories.
Talking about memories forms a much smaller part of the process than in other forms of therapy, and is not really central to the process as it would be with other types of therapy.
This can make EMDR a very useful form of therapy for those who remain burdened with unpleasant memories that they want relief from, but do not really want to discuss in great detail. Let’s look in more detail at how the EMDR process work in relation to talking and conversation.
Some Talking is Involved in EMDR
While there is some talking involved in EMDR, it is brief compared to the amount of time spent on eye movements and processing.
As a matter of fact, the majority of the communication occurs at the outset of the process and briefly at the outset of each session. Except for that, there is typically very little talking done, especially when compared to the typical talk therapy format.
In the first session with your EMDR therapist, you and the therapist will create a life history, or “timeline,” of significant events that you want to address.
Some back-and-forth on this is possible, with the sole purpose of eliciting key overarching themes and patterns. A competent professional, however, will not force you to talk about anything you feel uncomfortable with.
Once this is done, though, talking won’t play a huge role; instead, the emphasis will be on reviving pivotal memories and processing them through the eye movements.
Here’s a quick rundown of how EMDR operates in terms of communication:
- The first step is to compile a client history, which may entail some back-and-forth as you recall significant moments from your past and identify defining or “standout” sources of emotional distress. If you prefer, you can avoid getting too specific and instead speak in broad strokes.
- The therapist will ask you to “tap into” a specific memory by recalling the associated sights, sounds, and smells. It’s up to you whether you want to express yourself verbally or nonverbally.
- The therapist will guide your back and forth eye movements with their hands, a light bar, or some other stimulus once you feel “tapped in” to a memory. In this practise, you focus inward and simply move your eyes back and forth without breaking eye contact.
- Typically, this lasts for twenty to thirty seconds. The therapist will then ask if anything else has arisen following this (other memories, thoughts, feelings etc). What’s on the horizon is your business, and you’re free to share details or keep them quiet as you see fit.
- The therapist will ask you to maintain focus on whatever else has come up, before starting the back and forth eye movements again.
- One way to lessen the impact of a traumatic memory without having to talk at length about it is to maintain a split attention, paying attention to both your internal experience and the external stimulus.
- As your mind wanders to other memories and thoughts, the therapist will repeat the steps: pay attention to the experience happening internally, follow the stimulus with your eyes for about 30 seconds, pay attention to what else is coming up and maintain focus, and then begin eye movements again.
- When this process begins, there is typically not a lot of time for conversation. You are free to talk about anything that comes to mind, or to say nothing at all.
- The therapist may pause at various points to elaborate on recent topics of conversation. Once more, you are under no obligation to provide extensive detail.
- The therapist might also inquire as to whether any other memories have surfaced in the interim. Again, you are free to go into detail or keep things broad.
- To learn more about the EMDR approach, check out our comprehensive article outlining the entire 8-step process.
EMDR Does Not Involve as Much Talking as Normal Therapy
What we have covered so far indicates that EMDR does feature nearly as much talking as conventional therapy would. In standard therapy, most or all of the sessions involve talking and verbalizing. In EMDR, only a minority of the process involves talking about memories.
In addition, much of the talking that is done in EMDR is not done for the same reasons or with the same goals as in standard therapy.
In talk therapy, any conversation is usually done with the goal of exposing or resolving conflicts and contradictions, or gaining information to improve the therapist’s knowledge of the client’s situation, seeing how certain things may interconnect and identify certain patterns.
In EMDR, some of the early “life history” discussion may be done with this in mind, but once the process is underway, the main goal of verbalizing is simply to help the person “tap in” neurologically to unpleasant memories, getting as much as possible back into the emotional state they were in at the time.
It is this reactivating of the memory, sometimes (though not always) though talking a little bit about it, that allows the processing to work, with the eye movement “blurring” the intensity of the memory once it has been tapped into, lessening it’s effect on the person.
Therefore we can see that EMDR approaches the whole idea of therapy in a very different way to the conventional approach, seeking a more “core” level philosophy of simply accessing and dissolving the unprocessed emotions surrounding key life events, rather than talking about the life events in great detail, which may or may not provide relief based on the person and the life history.
See the table below for a good comparison of EMDR versus other forms of therapy.
|Type of Therapy||Views source of psychological disturbance as:||Treats With:|
|Psychodynamic Therapy||Conflicts in the conscious/subsconscious mind||Talking, verbally working through conflicts and contradictions|
|Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT)||Dysfunctional beliefs and behaviours||Directly challenge and modify these beliefs; set homework tasks|
|EMDR||Unprocessed memories stored in the body/brain||Access and process these memories using eye movements and other stimulus|
During EMDR, the focus is on staying present with whatever comes up internally, not necessarily discussing it if you don’t want to
You Don’t Need to Verbalize Uncomfortable Memories in EMDR
This can be a big advantage of EMDR versus standard talk therapy. The latter can involve the painful dissection of distressing, embarassing events in conversation; the former need not.
In EMDR, the emphasis is not on verbally talking through past events in great detail. There is some talking required, but only a limited amount, and only to tap the person into negative feelings associated with events, and discuss any connecting memories which come up, if desired.
In other words, in EMDR the therapist is not asking you to talk about memories so they can get information they need to know; it is more to bring you back into a state where some of the feelings you felt at the time are reactivated, which can then be processed using the eye movements.
In the first few sessions, when the therapist is explaining the EMDR process to you, they should point out that if at any point, you do not want to talk about anything that comes up, because it is too painful or embarassing, then you don’t need to.
This goes for any memory which you dealing with to start with the initial “tapping in” process, or any subsequent secondary memories which come up during the process. You can remain as specific or vague as you like when verbalizing these memories.
The main goal in processing in EMDR is to stay mindful and aware of what is coming up for you internally, both in terms of feelings and memories.
You don’t need to talk about what is coming up if you don’t want to; you just need to stay present with it and follow the movement of the therapist’s hand, or some other back and forward stimulus.
This can make EMDR a very useful form of psychotherapy for clients who have memories with a lot of guilt, shame and embarassment attached to them.
In standard talk therapy, they would be expected to talk through these memories in great detail; in EMDR, they don’t need to. They just need to stay with the memory internally, follow the outer stimulus and notice what else comes up.
This can make it a very effective therapy in bypassing these common barriers to progress in conventional therapy of not wanting to talk about uncomfortable memories, yet still getting clients in a much better place in terms of detaching from distressing memories and being less burdened by them.
Here are some examples of people who can benefit from the non verbal aspect of EMDR:
- People who have memories with a lot of shame, embarassment and humiliation attached to them.
- People who are distressed by memories of things which they have done, which they are ashamed or guilty about, but do not want to talk about in detail.
- In this regard, war veterans who have seen or done unpleasant things in their line of work that they don’t like discussing, but the memories of which continue to distress them, can benefit from the EMDR process.
- Clients who are traumatized to the extent they are very quiet and withdrawn, and are really not comfortable conversing much in any context, including therapy.
- People who are just naturally reserved and private, and not given to discussing their inner experience or life in great detail.
- People who have tried standard talk therapy and not had much success, and want a more direct way of addressing unpleasant past experiences.
Talking About Secondary Experiences With EMDR
Having said that, it can be helpful to mention things to your therapist which do come up during the process, provided that doing so is not too embarrassing or distressing, despite what we have just said about not needing to discuss experiences if you don’t want to.
This is because, as the EMDR process develops, it has the potential to unearth secondary and repressed memories that the client may have thought were long forgotten. Things people have buried for a long time can resurface and cause problems.
As the client engages in the process of tapping into something, becoming aware of their own internal experience, performing the eye movements, and then becoming aware of what else comes up, a cascade of secondary memories connected to the initial memory may be triggered.
By revealing how the subconscious mind stores memories in sometimes peculiar and bizarre patterns, such that memories are attached to each other in very unusual and seemingly illogical ways, EMDR can show how fascinating and non linear the mind can be. However, no matter how absurd something may appear at first, there is always some sort of link between them.
If you feel comfortable doing so, it may be beneficial to briefly discuss this with the therapist, if only to describe what these secondary memories are.
If you want to see a good example of how the EMDR process can unearth secondary memories that lead onto other memories and so on, check out the video below, in which Dr. James Alexander provides a good example. The ultimate aim is to get to a “core” experience or negative feeling about oneself that, once resolved, can bring about significant improvements in self-image and quality of life.
He stresses the importance of mentioning such memories if at all possible, even if they seem silly or unrelated to the preceding ones, because of the potential they hold.
As we’ve already established, however, no EMDR therapist will coerce you into discussing anything you’d rather not. The process’s primary aim is silent observation; client-initiated verbalization is purely complementary.
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