Trauma is an event or experience that leaves an individual feeling powerless and unsafe. For some people, a traumatic experience can be the source of posttraumatic stress disorder and impair their daily functioning. The memories of the traumatic event can pop into one’s head at any time, leading to feelings of terror, sadness, and anger as well as panic attacks and various psychological disorders. These intrusive thoughts and images associated with the distressing event can easily interfere with daily life and impact one’s well-being.
EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) is a form of therapy created to help people who have experienced trauma. The treatment is based on the idea that eye movement can be used to desensitize a person to the memories of the traumatic event. Research on EMDR therapy has yielded some promising data on its efficacy. One study found that EMDR therapy was able to significantly reduce symptoms of PTSD in a group of veterans (Kessler, et al., 2017), while another concluded that this form of psychotherapy is an effective treatment for social anxiety disorder (SAD) (Watanabe, et al., 2016).
The eight phases of EMDR therapy
EMDR therapy is a non-traditional trauma treatment that takes a different approach to trauma healing. This form of psychotherapy is based on trauma-informed basic principles and protocols and does not require clients to talk openly about their emotions. Instead, the therapy focuses on eye movement and emotional surgery.
EMDR is an eight-phase treatment designed to help people process their disturbing memories and strip these memories of their power to cause psychological stress.
The first phase in EMDR is establishing rapport with the client and assessing their emotional health. This involves getting to know the client and their history, as well as discussing any goals they may have for treatment. The therapist will try to assess their current emotional state and identify potential triggers in order to establish the best treatment plan.
Preparation helps clients to prepare for the process ahead and become more grounded and stable. Clients are typically asked to keep a journal to track their progress and emotions and identify any disturbing event they have experienced that may still echo through their life. Client preparation can last anywhere from one session to a few months, depending on the individual’s needs.
During the third phase of treatment, the therapist asks the client what they hope to achieve through therapy. The therapist will now work with the client to identify any distressing memories, negative beliefs, or trigger points that may be causing distress and create a list of targets that should be addressed in therapy. This list of painful memories brings focus to the EMDR therapy and helps the client make progress in how they manage their emotional memories. The assessment phase allows the therapist to determine if the treatment is appropriate for the client.
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Desensitization marks the beginning of the client’s journey toward their emotional encounter with their distressing memories. The therapist uses various techniques, such as eye movement exercises, guided imagery, and relaxation training. The goal is to help the client reach a state of calm where they can begin to process their emotional stress without feeling overwhelmed. The client focuses on the target memory while making certain eye movements to reduce the emotional response associated with the memory. By emptying difficult memories of their emotional charge, the client finds it easier and less painful to cope with them. A negative memory left without any emotional significance reduces the impact of symptoms associated with trauma, such as anxiety and depression.
Installation is an important milestone for clients undergoing EMDR therapy. The therapist helps the client install the new positive beliefs and associations created during therapy, and the client learns to incorporate the positive aspects of EMDR into their life. During this phase, the client learns how to integrate more positive self-beliefs in order to reduce stress. The therapist will arm the client with the necessary perspectives to deal with challenging future events.
6. Body scan
The body scan phase is meant to help clients process the emotions they experienced during treatment. The client will be asked to focus on the body sensations that may arise during therapy. This can include physical sensations, emotions, or memories. By focusing on these sensations, clients can begin to understand how their experience has affected them physically and emotionally and find their way to a peaceful resolution.
During the closure phase of EMDR therapy, clients process and integrate the emotions and memories addressed during treatment. This phase usually lasts a few weeks, and clients may discuss their EMDR therapy experiences with friends and family. Closure is a crucial part of the healing process, and a support system during this time can prove to be essential for the client’s well-being.
The reevaluation phase in EMDR is the process of evaluating the results of treatment. This includes reviewing the client’s symptoms, determining whether the treatment was effective, and making any necessary adjustments to the treatment plan. The reevaluation phase also helps to determine whether EMDR should be continued or discontinued. EMDR should only be continued if the client is experiencing positive results from treatment.
What to expect during an EMDR treatment session
EMDR therapy is a relatively short-term treatment. Depending on the nature of the trauma, it can last five to eight therapy sessions or several months. The treatment phase in EMDR involves the client sitting in a comfortable chair and reprocessing memories.
During EMDR treatment, the therapist asks the client to focus on specific elements of a traumatic memory while following the therapist’s finger with their eyes. Some therapists may use tapping movements or musical tones instead of hand motions.
The client will have to move their eyes back and forth, side to side, or up and down. The movement relaxes the body and mind and allows them to focus on the present moment while desensitizing the trauma memory and reducing the associated distress. Clients are usually asked to verbally check in about the experience throughout as they follow the finger motion.
As the client focuses on the memory and follows the therapist’s prompts and movements, they will begin to process and release the emotions associated with the trauma. The therapist will continue to guide the client’s eye movements until the memory is no longer upsetting and the emotions have been resolved. After the EMDR treatment session is complete, the therapist will guide the client to closure by processing and integrating the emotions and memories addressed during treatment.
When should you consider EMDR therapy?
In EMDR therapy, the goal is to help clients face their unprocessed memories as spectators and stabilize their emotions. This can be achieved by addressing the root cause of the trauma and helping them process and heal the disturbing experiences. The eye movement component of the therapy stimulates the brain and promotes healing, allowing clients to better understand and manage their emotions.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), panic disorder, and anxiety disorders can be treated using EMDR because they are often caused by distressing or intrusive memories. EMDR can help clients learn to be mindful of any triggers that may cause a relapse and take steps to avoid or cope with them.
However, there is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question, as the best time to try EMDR will vary depending on the individual. EMDR may be a good option for those who have not found relief from other psychological treatments or forms of therapy or who struggle to talk about their emotions. If you are considering EMDR, it is important to consult with a mental health professional to see if EMDR therapy is right for you.