What is EMDR Therapy?
Eye-movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) is an integrative approach to psychotherapy that has been extensively researched since it’s emergence. It was originally created to alleviate the distress associated with the effects of traumatic events, and over the years, has been found to be helpful with many other mental health concerns. EMDR assists individuals in accessing the trauma memories and then processing them in a way that leads to an adaptive resolution, thus decreasing the negative impact of the memories. Essentially, EMDR can play a huge part in helping people heal from past traumas and the symptoms of those traumas.
EMDR has been growing in popularity over recent years, possibly due to repeated studies showing that EMDR therapy can help to heal emotional pain by streamlining the system for healing.
Commonly, EMDR is effective in dealing with issues of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and similar anxiety-provoking conditions that occur after a traumatic event. Although this solution appears to approach psychological problems in a somewhat unusual way – ignoring medications and talking therapies – it can be useful for many people.
Methods Used in Eye-Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing EMDR
EMDR incorporates a set of standardized protocols pulled from elements of multiple therapeutic modalities. Unlike many psychotherapy and counseling approaches, EMDR does not use talking strategies for healing. Instead, EMDR focuses on the rhythmic eye movements (that we all experience each day) of the client. The eye movements within an EMDR session are triggered either by a therapist moving their fingers back and forth in front of the client’s face (asking that they follow the motions with their eyes) or through a machine with lights moving back and forth. At the same time, your therapist will ask you to recall a disturbing event, recalling the emotions and bodily sensations that go alongside it.
These eye movements are used as a venue to decrease the power of (or desensitize) the emotionally-charged memories. After desensitization occurs, the EMDR therapist will lead the client to shift into the “installation” phase. The installation phase is where the client is encouraged to shift their thoughts to a more pleasant memory, essentially asking for the negative or emotionally-charged memory to be replaced with a positive vision. After each session, the client will rate their level of distress regarding the traumatic memory, and likely, each session the intensity of distress will decrease.
- Many clients report only needing one or two sessions per traumatic memory to get to an emotionally neutral place with the memory.
- A treatment session for EMDR is typically anywhere from ninety minutes to two hours.
Although most research into EMDR has examined its potential in PTSD sufferers, it can be used to treat other mental health struggles and issues as well, including:
- Panic attacks
- Feelings of shame and guilt
- Relationship problems
- Lack of motivation
- Fear of being alone
- Difficulty with trusting others
The Goals and Outcomes of EMDR
The foundations of EMDR indicate that the mind is capable of healing from psychological trauma in a manner that’s similar to the body recovering from physical trauma. For instance, when you cut yourself, your body closes and cleans the wound. If something continues to irritate the wound, then it may fester, scar, or cause additional pain. However, if you can remove the irritation, then healing resumes.
EMDR therapy demonstrates that a similar sequence of events can take place with mental processes. The brain’s system for processing information naturally works to push towards mental health, and if the system is imbalanced by the impact of disturbing events, healing cannot continue. EMDR therapy attempts to remove the blocks towards mental health, using eight-phase treatments.
During an EMDR treatment, eye movement stimulation is used, once a clinician has determined which memory to target first. Additionally, the idea is to focus on creating natural movements with the eyes by asking the patient to follow the movement of a hand or finger, while recalling memories. The system replicates REM sleep, a time in which the mind can better process difficult thoughts and feelings.
In successful cases of EMDR therapy, the meanings and feelings associated with painful events can be reduced on an emotional level. For instance, a rape victim might shift their feelings of disgust and horror to a reminder that they are a strong survivor. Unlike talk therapy, the insights that clients gain from EMDR therapy come from their own emotional and intellectual processes, rather than the interpretation of a clinician.
Ideally, each patient will complete their EMDR therapy experience feeling empowered, and free from the debilitation caused by the previous trauma.
Should You Consider EMDR Treatment?
Though EMDR therapy is still a relatively new therapeutic technique, it is showing significant success across the globe as a natural process for managing difficult, challenging, and/or traumatic thoughts and emotions. During EMDR, the therapist gently leads the client through a journey of removing traumatic energy and working to transcend the pain of past experiences so that the client can return to their natural state of being. There are different factors to consider when determining if EMDR is an appropriate modality for you, mostly regarding one’s history and specific situation. All EMDR therapists will conduct an initial assessment where the relevant factors will be analyzed. The best way to determine if EMDR therapy is right for you may be to schedule a consultation with a clinician. During this consultation, you will be able to discuss the unique nature of your circumstances and discover more about what the therapy solution could do for you.
In September 2022 a pilot study was conducted on the use of EMDR on 21 patients hospitalized for COVID-19. EMDR therapy was shown to be an effective strategy for helping patients process exposure to adverse events by relieving symptoms of acute stress and trauma by strengthening adaptive coping strategies. The pandemic led to unprecedented mental-health challenges worldwide. For many directly affected by the disease, the stress of facing potential death and overcoming fear lead to symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety and depression. In times of trauma, EMDR has been shown to be an effective therapy to reduce symptoms of stress and maintain an improved psychological state.
Cvetek R. (2008). EMDR treatment of distressful experiences that fail to meet the criteria for PTSD. Journal of EMDR Practice and Research. 2(1), 2–14.
Shapiro F. (2014). The role of eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy in medicine: addressing the psychological and physical symptoms stemming from adverse life experiences. The Permanente Journal, 18(1), 71–77.
EMDR Institute, Inc. (2019). What is EMDR? Taken from http://www.emdr.com/what-is-emdr/
Brennstuhl MJ, Pascale T, Ann RJ, Camille Louise T, Lydia P, Christine R, Cyril T. Treating COVID-19 patients with EMDR: A pilot study. European Journal of Trauma & Dissociation. 2022 Sep;6(3):100276. doi: 10.1016/j.ejtd.2022.100276. Epub 2022 May 4. PMCID: PMC9065594.