What is EMDR Therapy?
EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. It is a non-traditional psychotherapy approach developed in the late 1980s by Francine Shapiro, PhD, an American psychologist. EMDR is an interactive psychotherapy technique used to relieve psychological stress. It was originally used for desensitization against traumatic memories.
Most of our traumatic experiences can be managed and resolved rather rapidly without help. Our stress responses are usually fight, flight or freeze, instincts that all animals have. Sometimes disturbing events can be overwhelming and feelings, images and thoughts from them remain with us, unresolved. We then experience the stress response each time the event is remembered.
EMDR therapy helps the brain process these memories, by distracting the brain with eye movement and other forms of rhythmic left-right (bilateral) stimulation (e.g., tones or taps), reducing the negative responses, inserting positive responses and allowing normal healing to resume. The experience is still remembered, but the fight, flight, or freeze response from the original event is resolved.
How effective is EMDR?
There have been numerous studies that show evidence of its effectiveness in treatment. These studies determined that EMDR helps the mind heal from psychologically traumatic memories or events faster than normal psychotherapy.
Because the brain naturally moves towards mental health, removing the blocks that a traumatic event or memory has placed, it can heal at the same speed as the physical healing of the body.
Over 30 studies have been done over the years since EMDR was first developed and each study has shown the marked improvement of patients who suffered from traumatic memories.
Overall, between 84-90% of the patients were able to move on with their lives, including about 77% of combat veterans who had previously suffered from PTSD, now are free of those symptoms.
What is EMDR Therapy used for?
It has been mostly used with people who are dealing with traumatic memories and those who have PTSD, specifically anyone who struggles to talk about their past experiences. Research has shown EMDR can help reduce symptoms that accompany a traumatic experience, such as self-harm, stress, and anger.
It’s scope has been widened for those who, regardless of age, are dealing with any of the following, because many times, these disorders are caused by a root traumatic event or memory.
- Alcohol Addiction
- Anxiety, Panic Attacks and Phobias
- Chronic Pain and Phantom Pain
- Drug Addiction
- Eating Disorders
- Personality Disorders
- Physical Abuse
- Sexual Assault
- Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
- Stress and Stress-induced Flare-ups of Skin Problems
- Grief and Loss
- Depression and Bipolar Disorders
- Dissociative Disorders
- Self-Esteem Issues
- Sleep Disturbance
How does EMDR work?
EMDR is composed of 8 phases that prods the patient to acknowledge the root of their trauma, typically a singular traumatic experience that served as a catalyst for the mental illness to form.
Guided by the EMDR therapist, the patient is able to reprocess the significant memory, allowing them the opportunity to relearn or adjust their perspective on the trauma in a healthier way.
This therapy is not an overnight or single session treatment. Most patients usually require 12 sessions in order to be free of the negative feelings surrounding a traumatic memory. These are the different phases are described below:
Phase 1: History and treatment planning
Your therapist takes your history and you both identify possible targets for EMDR processing.
Phase 2: Preparation
Your therapist will teach you several different coping skills for the emotional or psychological stress you’re experiencing. Stress management techniques such as deep breathing and mindfulness may be used.
Phases 3 – 6: Treatment
A specific memory will be targeted for EMDR therapy and you will be asked to focus on a negative thought or image related to the memory. Also a negative belief about yourself and the related emotions and body sensations associated with that memory.
At this point your therapist will show you specific eye movements. The bilateral stimulation may also include taps or other movements mixed in, depending on your case. This is used to desensitize and distract you from that specific memory.
A positive image or belief is introduced, that you would like to have regarding the memory, in order to help overcome the bad memory. Thoughts and feelings are identified as you refocus on the traumatic memory with the positive imagery or belief.
Phase 7: Closure
Each session is ended with closure so you can move on to the next traumatic memory, knowing that the previous one no longer has any effect on you. If closure has not been reached at the end of a session, coping and self-calming skills are provided until the next therapy session.
Phase 8: Evaluation
In the final phase, you’ll be asked to evaluate your progress after each session. Your therapist will do the same. This way your therapist will be able to identify if you need more help, more sessions or different therapy.
Phases 3-8 are repeated for each traumatic memory or event until both you and your therapist are happy with your outlook.
Final Words on EMDR
There is always more research being done with EMDR to find what else it can help overcome. The fact that EMDR is faster than other psychotherapies in getting past PTSD and other traumatic events and memories as well as disorders associated with them, is a great boon.
EMDR has been endorsed by the American Psychiatric Association and the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies. It is also used by the United States Department of Veterans Affairs, the Department of Defense and overseas organizations, including the United Kingdom Department of Health and the Israeli National Council for Mental Health.
Over 20,000 therapists across North America and over 100,000 worldwide are certified to use EMDR. And the list keeps growing. After 30 years of studies and research, as well as positive results in patients, EMDR is not only one of the most effective therapies, but one that’s here to stay.