How EMDR Works in Treating Anxiety

How EMDR Works in Treating Anxiety

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By Diana Schaefer, LCSW

Most people suffer from anxiety from time to time. I know I have. We all need some anxiety to function. If you had no anxiety you might not be motivated to do anything! However, too much anxiety can hinder us from being at our best.  Whether it’s situational; such as having to do public speaking, taking a test, or having to drive after having had an accident, or more generalized where you feel anxious but are not sure why, EMDR works in treating anxiety.

How Does EMDR Work for Anxiety? 

The first step is identifying what is triggering the anxiety. If it’s something like public speaking, one way I’ve used EMDR is to come up with a time when you did a good job speaking publicly and you felt successful. We would then touch on how you felt when you were successful, what positives thoughts you had about yourself, have you imagine how you sat or stood in front of the group and even think of a word or phrase to describe that feeling. We would then use bilateral stimulation, which is stimuli, either visual, auditory, or tactile, which occur in a rhythmic left-right pattern, while you experience those feelings, thoughts, body sensations, and images in your mind. Then, we would attach the word or phrase that helps you remember that feeling. This is called resourcing the positive experience.

The next step would be to have you concentrate on an upcoming event when you have to speak in public. Here again, we would have you imagine being in front of a group you’ll be speaking to identify the feelings that emerge, images, physical sensations, irrational negative thoughts you have about yourself and what you want to believe when we are done or the positive thought. I would also ask how upsetting this is on a scale of 0-10. We would then use the bilateral stimulation while you think about the situation. What usually happens is the negative feelings and irrational beliefs become more positive and the level of upset (or anxiety) goes down.

Another approach I’ve used is to have the person imagine that they are successfully speaking to a group. In this approach, we would run a movie in your head successfully speaking to the group using the bilateral stimulation, starting with the preparation of getting ready for the speech through to the end of the talk. We would stop when they feel the anxiety coming on and then we would process the anxiety until it went down.

Case Example: (all identifying information was removed and scenarios altered to maintain anonymity)

I worked with a young woman who suffered from anxiety which she felt intensely whenever she had to be the center of attention. She was getting married and the thought of everyone staring at her terrified her. She had suffered from panic attacks in the past and was very afraid she would have a panic attack at her own wedding and ruin the entire experience of her special day.

Obviously, sometimes the anxiety is based on traumatic experiences that also need to be addressed. This was also true in her case. She had a loss that left her feeling unprotected and vulnerable. We worked together for several weeks on having her imagine getting up that day, getting dressed and ready, walking with her father down the aisle of the church and doing this successfully without a panic attack. Her level of anxiety before we started the process was at a 10+. We were able to get the anxiety level down to about a 3 which was fine with her. She wanted to feel in control but the anxiety made her feel out of control. We also worked on the deeper reasons behind her anxiety. She ended up having a little anxiety during her wedding (who wouldn’t?) but it did not limit her or prevent her from having a wonderful experience.

If you feel that you or a loved one can benefit from either anxiety counseling or EMDR therapy, you can contact us to make a counseling appointment. If you would like a more general perspective on EMDR, you can read How EMDR Works.

Photo by Amanda Dalbjörn on Unsplash