What if there was a way for your mind to potentially overcome past trauma with natural healing? Thanks to EMDR, a relatively new type of psychotherapy, this may be possible for anyone suffering from psychological distress. To help you decide whether EMDR therapy could be right for you, discover everything from what EMDR is to what to expect during EMDR therapy, how the treatment works and what to expect after EMDR therapy.
Learn more with the most common questions and answers about EMDR therapy below.
What Does EMDR Therapy Stand For?
EMDR stands for eye movement desensitization and reprocessing. EMDR is a form of therapy that can help clients heal emotional wounds and distress caused by traumatic experiences. Some clients report being in therapy for years and still not feeling like they have achieved the change and relief they want, and that is where EMDR can come in.
Repeated studies have shown that in EMDR treatment, some clients can experience the benefits of therapy it took years for them to achieve in other forms of treatment.
What Is EMDR Therapy?
EMDR is a type of structured psychotherapy in which the client briefly focuses on a traumatic memory while experiencing bilateral stimulation at the same time. That stimulation is most often eye movements, associated with reducing the severity and strong emotions of traumatic memories. Through this process, EMDR can enable clients to recover from emotional distress and other symptoms from disturbing life experiences.
EMDR therapy focuses on helping clients heal by transforming the meaning of painful events on an emotional level. Unlike many other forms of therapy, the insights clients gain from EMDR treatment come from their own accelerated intellectual and emotional processes rather than an outsider’s interpretation. Because of this approach, most EMDR clients feel empowered after completing therapy because their wounds have not just closed but transformed.
What Happens in EMDR Therapy?
EMDR is an eight-phase treatment that uses bilateral stimulation — eye movements — to target memories and distressing feelings. EMDR focuses on three time periods — the past, present, and future. It aims to reprocess past memories in a healthy way and teach people the skills to address current and future events.
In general, the phases of EMDR therapy include going over the client’s history, preparing them for treatment, assessing the target memory of trauma, processing the memory to adaptive resolution and evaluating the treatment results. The majority of the time is spent on EMDR sessions addressing the target memories.
Each EMDR therapy session lasts about an hour to an hour and a half and involves working through a memory of trauma with the client. As the client recalls a specific memory, they are asked to track the therapist’s hand while it moves back and forth — bilaterally — through the client’s field of vision. Through this exercise, the client’s internal associations with the memory arise and they can begin processing the memory and disturbing emotions better.
The eight phases of EMDR therapy are set up to target specific traumatic memories. They enable a client to reprocess those memories by creating a learning state that allows the traumatic experiences to be digested and stored appropriately in the brain. A patient can learn the useful aspects of an experience then store it away in the brain while inappropriate beliefs, emotions and body sensations will be discarded.
In this way, EMDR therapy can help a client make more positive choices by learning from the past without letting unresolved negative emotions dictate future decisions. After completing the eight phases of EMDR therapy, a client should have the necessary perspective, understanding and emotions to engage in healthy interactions and behaviors.
What Should I Expect During EMDR?
Below is a more in-depth look at each of the eight phases of EMDR therapy.
1. History and Treatment Plan
At the beginning of therapy, the client will have a few sessions to go over their history and develop a plan for treatment alongside their therapist. After discussing the specific grievances that brought the client into therapy, the therapist will be able to come up with a plan to target these issues with EDMR:
- The past events that created the problem
- The present scenarios that cause distress
- The key behaviors or skills the client needs to learn for their future well-being
Once a treatment plan has been decided upon, the therapist will begin to prep the client for therapy. They’ll teach the patient a few specific relaxation techniques for rapidly dealing with any emotional disturbances that may come up during an EMDR session. After the client has mastered these techniques, they may progress to the next phase.
3. Assessment of the Target Memory
In this phase, the client begins to reprocess traumatic memories. The client must first access the target memory by focusing on a specific mental image from the event. Then, they choose a statement that encompasses the negative self-belief associated with the event, such as, “I am worthless.” Next, the client will choose a positive self-statement they would rather believe, such as, “I am worthwhile.”
The therapist then asks the client to rank how true the positive statement feels on the Validity of Cognition (VOC) scale. The client will also be asked to rate the negative belief on a different scale known as the Subjective Units of Disturbance (SUDs) scale. Throughout the following phases of EMDR therapy, the goal is for the SUD scores to decrease while the VOC scores increase.
This phase concentrates on the client’s negative emotions and physical sensations according to the SUDs rating. As the patient targets a memory, the therapist leads them through a set of eye movements, sounds or taps with the appropriate shifts in focus until the SUDs rating is minimized. After resolving the main target memory, the client can go on to reprocess any other negative associations with the event.
Now that the negative belief has been addressed, the client’s positive cognition can be installed. This phase helps reinforce the strength of the positive feeling the patient has selected to replace the old negative one. As the client begins to accept the truth of their positive self-statement, their VOC rating can rise.
6. Body Scan
In this phase, the client will need to bring the original target memory to mind again to see whether any residual tension appears in the body. If so, the physical sensations will be targeted for reprocessing. The clinician will repeat this phase until the client can bring up the original memory without the body experiencing any tension. That change demonstrates the positive self-belief registers as true on more than just the intellectual level.
At the end of each EMDR treatment session, the therapist will ensure the client leaves feeling better than at the beginning. If one session is not enough to completely process a traumatic target, the therapist will walk the patient through self-calming techniques to regain a sense of peace and control. The client will also be briefed on what to expect and do between sessions.
8. Evaluation of Treatment Results
Each new session should begin with reevaluation to gauge how well the therapy is working. Analyzing the treatment’s success indicates whether the therapist needs to make any adjustments to the treatment plan. Although some clients may experience relief from EMDR almost immediately, it is imperative to complete all eight phases of the treatment.
How Does EMDR Therapy Work?
Just like the body can recover from physical injuries and trauma, the mind can heal from psychological trauma via EMDR therapy. But both of these natural healing processes are susceptible to getting disrupted.
If a wound becomes irritated by a foreign object or repeated injury, it can start to fester and cause increased pain. Similarly, repetitive emotional trauma or fixating on negative memories can inhibit the mind from fully healing. EMDR focuses on restoring the brain’s natural healing process and enabling the mind to heal itself by removing whatever is preventing the system from working.
Humans are designed with a system called the adaptive information processing (AIP) model that allows information to be processed in a healthy way. Naturally, this adaptive processing system affects mental health. The brain’s process for recovering from traumatic events and memories involves communication among these three components:
- The amygdala is the alarm signal for distressing events.
- The hippocampus is responsible for assisting us with learning, including memories about danger and safety.
- The prefrontal cortex is the center for analyzing and controlling our behaviors and emotions.
If this intricate system becomes blocked or imbalanced by the impact of a traumatic event or disturbing experience, the emotional wound starts to fester. That imbalance may cause suffering, such as flashbacks, nightmares or other symptoms of trauma. For example, a person who gets into a bad car accident and is traumatized may still get anxious and nervous years later when driving or have flashbacks of the accident. This response indicates the system is blocked and healing stopped.
EMDR therapy comes in and can remove that block so the process of healing can continue. The detailed procedures and protocols used in EMDR treatment focus on helping clients reactivate this natural healing process to ultimately heal the mind.
Is EMDR Therapy Effective?
Numerous studies have confirmed that EMDR therapy is an effective treatment. In fact, more than 30 controlled outcome studies have shown that EMDR brings about positive effects. Some studies even showed as many as 90% of trauma survivors having no symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after just three sessions. Other studies have deemed EMDR a simpler and more rapid treatment for trauma than cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which is a common type of talk therapy.
What Is EMDR Therapy Used For?
A professional can administer EMDR treatment to address a variety of mental health challenges in both adults and children. Most notably, using EMDR therapy for anxiety and PTSD has yielded successful results over the years. EMDR therapy for PTSD is an effective treatment because of the way it helps clients overcome intense trauma.
EMDR can help treat clients with the following:
- PTSD and other trauma or stress-related issues
- Anxiety, phobias and panic attacks
- Depression and bipolar disorders
- Personality disorders
- Eating disorders
- Sleep disturbances
- Dissociative disorders
- Pain or chronic illness and medical issues
- Grief and loss
- Sexual assault, abuse and violence trauma
- Substance abuse and addiction
Anyone suffering from the conditions above is a good candidate for EMDR treatment.
Who Can Do EMDR Therapy?
Because EMDR therapy is a mental health intervention, it should not be attempted without a trained EMDR therapist. Only properly trained and licensed mental health clinicians should administer EMDR. Clients should avoid any websites advertising “do-it-yourself” virtual EMDR therapy.
Is EMDR Therapy Safe?
When done with a trained and licensed therapist, EMDR is a relatively safe form of psychotherapy. EMDR also comes with much fewer side effects than prescription medications. That being said, EMDR therapy side effects can include vivid, realistic dreams or light-headedness after a session due to the heightened awareness of thinking induced during the treatment.
How Long Does It Take for EMDR Therapy to Work?
The exact amount of time it takes a patient to complete EMDR treatment depends on their personal history. While some clients may have no more symptoms of trauma after just a few EMDR sessions, others may need anywhere between six to 12 sessions of EMDR therapy before seeing any positive outcomes.
In general, EMDR allows clients to experience the benefits of therapy long before many other forms of psychotherapy, which can take years to make an impact. Although EMDR treatment tends to produce results more quickly than other types of treatment, clients should not rush through the phases or expect to feel better instantly.
What Should I Expect After EMDR?
After an EMDR session, a client may feel a bit energized from all of the brain stimulation, which is perfectly normal. As the patient continues with their EMDR treatment plan, the therapy should start taking away their negative emotions and physical sensations from past traumatic events and replacing them with positive affirmations.
If EMDR therapy is successful, the meaning and interpretation of memories and events are transformed at an emotional level for people. For example, a victim of car theft shifts from feeling, “I am always in danger, never safe and constantly having anxiety symptoms.” After treatment, they may feel, “I am safe now. I can create my sense of safety and am no longer experiencing anxiety symptoms.”
Overall, a client should feel lighter, more optimistic and healthier after EMDR treatment. Because EMDR therapy is a client-driven process, all the positive insights, reflections and a feeling of empowerment come from the client. With EMDR treatment, wounds not only heal — they also transform.