What is EMDR therapy? How to know if treatment is right for you
What is EMDR?
EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing. It’s a fairly new, non-traditional type of psychotherapy. EMDR is designed to help people heal from the symptoms and emotional distress resulting from traumatic or disturbing life experiences.
EMDR can help people get the benefits of psychotherapy must faster than regular talk therapy. Conventional wisdom in the therapy world once said that severe emotional pain takes a long time, sometimes even years or decades, to heal. But EMDR therapy’s successes indicate that may not always be true.
That’s because EMDR helps the mind heal from psychological trauma similar to how the body recovers from physical trauma. EMDR addresses the core of the person’s pain, treating it at the source.
Although new, EMDR has been extensively researched and can help treat PTSD, anxiety, depression, and panic disorders.
What therapy EMDR is not
EMDR doesn’t involve talking in detail about the distressing event/issue or doing homework between sessions. Instead of rehashing the issue, EMDR therapy lets the brain heal trauma from within. It’s designed to resolve unprocessed traumatic memories in the brain.
This involves identifying a key negative or traumatic event, feeling, pattern, or behavior and then identifying a negative image, belief, emotion, and body sensation related to the key negative event. The patient will then identify a positive belief that would indicate the issue has been resolved. A typical EMDR therapy session lasts between 60 and 90 minutes.
Who can EMDR benefit?
EMDR can benefit people who suffer from or have a history of:
- Panic attacks
- Chronic illnesses
- Distressing medical issues or medical trauma
- Dissociative disorders
- Eating disorders
- Grief or loss of a loved one
- Performance anxiety
- Personality disorders
- PTSD and other trauma or stress-related issues
- Sexual or physical assault
- Past abuse
- Sleep disturbances
- Substance abuse and addiction
Keep in mind that EMDR isn’t a cure-all. But it can help with a variety of issues, depending on your specific circumstances.
How does EMDR therapy work?
EMDR therapy is broken into 8 phases, so it involves multiple sessions. Much like typical psychotherapy, it’s not a one-and-done thing.
Treatment usually consists of anywhere from 6 to 12 sessions, but more sessions may be needed, especially if more than 1 traumatic experience needs to be processed.
Phases of EMDR therapy:
Phase 1: History and treatment planning
Your therapist will review your symptoms and health history to get a better understanding of where you are in the treatment process. This includes briefly discussing your trauma and naming specific triggers, memories, or experiences you may want to discuss in future EMDR sessions.
Phase 2: Preparation
Your therapist will teach you a few techniques to help manage and cope with the emotional or psychological stress caused by confronting negative memories. This is called “resourcing” and can help you handle any uncomfortable feelings that may surface during treatment. Expanding your toolkit before starting the actual EMDR sessions can help you handle stress better and start lessening your symptoms sooner.
Phase 3: Assessment
Your therapist will guide you through the process of selecting a specific memory to target. You’ll be asked to notice any relevant aspects of the memory, like:
- Painful emotions
- Physical sensations
- Intrusive thoughts or images
- Distressing or unwanted self-beliefs or core values
Phases 4-7: Treatment
Next, your therapist will start using EMDR therapy techniques to address the specific memory you’ve chosen to target during the assessment phase. These phases all take place in a single session. Each session takes place in 4 stages:
You’ll focus on the targeted memory while being guided through bilateral stimulation (BLS). This can involve specific side-to-side eye movements, tapping your hands rhythmically, listening to audio tones, or viewing blinking lights.
As you do this, you’ll let your mind go blank, noticing any thoughts or feelings that may arise. Your therapist will ask you to refocus on the traumatic memory – or they may move on to another if the originally targeted memory no longer triggers unwanted emotions.
Next, you’ll “install” a positive self-belief or core value, or image to replace the unwanted one you identified during the assessment phase. You’ll focus on this belief through another repetition of BLS.
Your therapist will ask you to identify any uncomfortable physical pain or sensations present in your body. If you notice any, they’ll guide you through another repetition of BLS.
At the end of the session, your therapist will explore your progress and suggest relaxation techniques or other coping mechanisms help you maintain improvements. Your therapist might walk you through relaxation techniques in session or have you do them alone after leaving your therapist’s office.
Phase 8: Re-evaluation
This phase begins in the next therapy session. Your therapist will ask you about the memories and feelings addressed in the previous session. Together, you’ll recap and evaluate how it went, identifying any progress.
If the memories still cause distress, your therapist might continue targeting them in subsequent sessions. If not, they’ll likely suggest moving on to new targets. The cycle can repeat until the problem is completely resolved.
How to try EMDR
As with most trauma therapy, EMDR can be stressful to undergo. Only attempt EMDR with a properly trained and licensed mental health clinician. It’s not a do-it-yourself therapeutic technique.
If you’re interested in EMDR, talk to your therapist. See if they have experience working with clients in EMDR sessions or if they can refer you to a practitioner who is. They’ll be able to answer your questions and decide whether it’s a good fit for you. They may use EMDR to accompany talk therapy or to supplement your existing treatment regimen.
What to know before trying EMDR
EMDR is generally seen as safe and effective with few side effects, but you might notice a few things after your sessions, including:
- Abnormally vivid dreams
- Greater sensitivity to emotions and physical sensations
You might want to plan a comforting, relaxing activity after your EMDR sessions to help you “come down” from any heightened emotions you might experience. You might find the beginning of therapy triggers some stress and discomfort, especially if you’re just starting to process traumatic events. But since EMDR doesn’t require you to talk at length about the details of traumatic events, you might find it less overwhelming than other ways to treat trauma.
If you’re curious about EMDR and think it might be a helpful addition to your treatment plan, ask your provider about it. They can provide a recommendation tailored to your specific situation and guide you through your options.