Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy, also known as EMDR therapy, is a relatively recent psychotherapy technique. The technique bypasses the traditional talk therapy and medication used to treat patients suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and focuses on using the patient’s own rapid eye movement to reduce trauma symptoms.
The technique was developed by psychologist Francine Shapiro to help people with mental health disorders such as anxiety, panic attacks, and trauma. EMDR has been clinically validated by more than 30 studies and extensively researched. Studies have shown EMDR to be effective, especially for patients trying to process traumatic memories such as military combat, physical assault, sexual abuse, or childhood trauma.
The goal of EMDR therapy is not to process negative emotions by talking about them but to change the distressing emotions and thoughts around the memories. EMDR also targets the behaviors associated with the episodes of emotional trauma and allows your brain to heal.
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How can EMDR therapy help?
Individuals struggling with painful memories and traumatic experiences are often at risk of developing post-traumatic stress and other mental health issues, especially if they don’t access therapy to process their memories.
Overcoming disturbing memories and managing emotional distress is not as easy as choosing to forget about them and moving on. While we may think everything is well handled and our emotional wounds have healed through sheer willpower, a sound, a word, or a smell can easily trigger those distressing memories we’ve tried so hard to bury.
Unprocessed trauma memory can easily lead to panic attacks, general anxiety, PTSD, and depression. What we thought was buried deep in our unconscious mind can resurface when we least expect it, shaking our world to the core.
EMDR therapy is based on certain standardized protocols that allow patients to drain the emotional charge from their traumatic memories and the brain to process them in a natural way. In other words, EMDR psychotherapy helps you face unprocessed memories and takes away their power to impact your mental health and well-being.
How does EMDR therapy work?
The eye movement desensitization technique changes the way memories are stored in our brain through bilateral stimulation of our eyes (or hands). An EMDR therapist uses certain protocols to lead you through bilateral eye movements (side-to-side) as you recall your traumatic event. The eye movement technique allows your brain to relive the disturbing event in small, tolerable segments until the targeted memory carries no emotional charge, and you no longer associate it with a negative response.
The lateral eye movements encourage memory processing and set your brain on the path of healing. The goal of EMDR therapy is not to help you forget your negative experiences but to turn every negative memory into a processed and accepted memory with no emotional consequences for your brain.
EMDR therapy involves as many sessions as are needed with an EMDR therapist and eight phases:
- Treatment planning – an initial discussion about the client’s reason for coming to therapy, mental symptoms, and health history;
- Preparation – the client and therapist set their goals and the therapist presents different relaxation and self-control techniques to help the client manage their emotions during and after the EMDR session;
- Assessment – the client chooses the traumatic memory they want to process and tries to identify any negative belief or negative symptoms associated with the target memory;
- Desensitisation – the client focuses on the distressing event while the therapist guides their eye movements back and forth with their finger;
- Installation – the therapist helps the client turn the negative belief associated with the target memory into a positive belief;
- Body scan – the client revisits the traumatic experience to see if any emotional distress or physical symptoms are still rooted in their memory. If the memory continues to cause any distress or pain, the therapist will repeat step 4.
- Closure – the session ends, and the therapist provides the client with relaxation exercises. The negative feelings or physical sensations once associated with the traumatic event should no longer exist.
- Reevaluation – the new session starts with a quick evaluation of the previous session for a better adjustment of the treatment plan.
Is EMDR therapy effective?
Since EMDR therapy steps outside the comfort zone of some medical health professionals, some have doubted the technique’s effectiveness. However, studies have shown that this form of therapy is a highly effective treatment for patients suffering from:
- anxiety disorders
- depressive disorder
- posttraumatic stress disorder
- dissociative disorders
- bipolar disorders
- personality disorders
- eating disorders
Focusing on rapid eye movements while relieving a distressing experience can ease painful memories and allow patients to process the memory without feeling overwhelmed by its emotional charge. In other words, EMDR therapy can help patients dim the intensity of the targeted memory and create space for the brain to understand the memory rationally without succumbing to the avalanche of emotions and thoughts associated with distressing life experiences.
The common belief is that this form of therapy provides a safe place for patients to relive adverse life experiences without becoming retraumatized in the process. The rapid eye movements that accompany the exercise steal from the attention patients would otherwise direct towards the disturbing experiences and unwanted thoughts and empty them of the negative emotions that they usually carry.
Research shows that EMDR therapy sessions can help patients cope with stressful events more quickly and more effectively than trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy, and reduce somatic symptoms such as muscle tension or pain often associated with emotional trauma.
Despite its non-conventional approach to treating trauma and other mental health issues, EMDR therapy is common around the world. The Department of Veterans Affairs and Department of Defense consider EMDR psychotherapy to be a best practice in treating veterans who are struggling with symptoms of PTSD. Furthermore, EDMR has been approved by the World Health Organisation and governments of many countries, including the UK, Australia, and Germany.