What is EMDR Therapy and How Does it Work?

Are you suffering from PTSD and vivid memories that keep bringing you back to the moment of your trauma over and over again? It used to be believed that a person would need years of therapy in order to process and work through these traumatic memories.

Although the amount of EMDR sessions needed varies from individual to individual, it’s generally an effective and significantly faster way to achieve the relief you’ve been seeking. 

What is EMDR therapy and how does it work? Read on to learn everything you need to know about this relatively new psychotherapy! 

What is EMDR Therapy and How Does It Work? 

EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. It’s interactive psychotherapy that typically helps patients suffering from PTSD attain relief. Although more research needs to be done on its effectiveness for these illnesses, it’s also being used to treat:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Panic attacks
  • Eating disorders
  • Addictions

We all have the ability to learn from difficult experiences and process information, which is called the Adaptive Information Processing model. However, when a person goes through trauma such as experiencing combat, sexual assault, a car accident, and more, this natural healing process is blocked.

The body can continue feeling the sensations from the traumatic event because its unable to completely process those emotions and memories. These traumatic memories can become trapped in the right hemisphere of the brain. 

EMDR therapy works on reconnecting the neural networks of those traumatic memories with both hemispheres of the brain. The bi-lateral eye movements that you make are similar to REM sleep. This stimulation interrupts your ability to focus on the symptoms of your trauma and continues to orient you in the present. 

Over time, those traumatic memories become less vivid and emotionally intense. 

One 2012 study followed 22 people with a psychotic disorder and PTSD. Researchers found that EMDR treatment helped 77% of them. Symptoms such as depression, delusions, and anxiety significantly improved. 

EMDR Phases

EMDR therapy takes place over several sessions and is broken down into eight different phases. In total, treatment often takes 12 sessions. 

Phase I

This is the phase where your doctor determines the level of treatment you need for the trauma that you went through. They’ll identify specific memories that are particularly hard. At this point, they’ll develop a treatment plan for the patient. 

Phase 2

After your therapist has identified your trauma, they’ll help teach you stress management techniques and grounding techniques to handle the stress you’re experiencing. This is a phase that most therapists will spend a good deal of time on, as they want you to be able to learn effective coping strategies when particularly hard memories come up. 

Although the goal of EMDR therapy is to make rapid changes and improvements in the patient’s response to traumatic memories, the patient shouldn’t feel overwhelmed or become further traumatized by reliving the memories. You’re encouraged to access a “Safe or Calm Place” at any point during the EMDR therapy. 

Phase 3

Your therapist will focus on specific memories and the symptoms and physical sensations that come up when you remember them. They’ll ask you to identify: 

  1. Visual images related to the traumatic memory
  2. A negative belief about yourself
  3. All the related emotions and sensations you experience with the memory
  4. A positive belief 

Phase 4-7

Once these target memories are determined and you’re comfortable with your stress management and grounding techniques, your therapist will begin using EMDR therapy to work on each one. As you focus on the image, negative thoughts, and body sensations, your therapist will have you do specific eye movements or bilateral stimulation.

During EMDR therapy, the patient is always in control. It’s important for patients to know that they don’t have to push themselves to relive entire memories if they don’t feel they’re ready. Although patients should expect some distress, discomfort, and pain, especially during the early stages of treatment, the process shouldn’t be intolerable. 

There will also be regular breaks, typically after every 25 to 50 passes of the lights. These breaks will help keep you grounded in the present even as you process the past.

After the bilateral stimulation is over, you’ll be requested to try and clear your mind and simply focus on the feelings and thoughts that occur. As you experience distress, your therapist will either have you focus on that memory or move on to a less distressing one.

Over time, your negative responses to those traumatic memories will begin to fade. 

Phase 8 

The last stage of EMDR therapy is the evaluation stage.

Both you and your therapist will evaluate the progress you’ve made since you began the sessions and consider the effectiveness of the therapy. The EMDR therapy should successfully address all the related past events, current events that bring on stress, and future events that may require a different response. 

Releasing Yourself from Past Trauma 

If you’ve asked yourself “What is EMDR therapy and how does it work?” hopefully we’ve brought more clarity to the subject. EMDR therapy is a safe and effective way to treat PTSD, with some positive but less studied results for anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and addictions. 

Not only will EMDR therapy help you process trauma from the past, but once your sessions will be completed you’ll be better equipped to navigate distressing parts of your life with coping skills that will keep you grounded. 

Continue reading the blog for more ways on how to improve your life!