What Is EMDR?
EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. It’s a type of therapy that help resolve symptoms, thoughts, behaviors, emotions, and other types of distress that result from a disturbing or traumatic experience. When an overwhelming experience occurs and the brain does not have the time or resources to process it in a healthy and adaptive manner, that memory can get stored in a part of the brain that makes it feel like it’s happening again and again, and it becomes stuck.
EMDR helps the brain become un-stuck, and to resume utilizing its natural way of resolving and integrating memories; the disturbance naturally resolves along with it. It’s similar to a doctor setting a broken bone – without intervention, the bone may try healing but not be able to do so well until the problem is resolved. Likewise, the mind tends toward healing under the right conditions. Another analogy is with computers; when a file becomes corrupted, it takes up a lot of space on the computer’s hard drive, and it’s difficult to access the information needed. Re-formatting that file enables it to be stored properly and it again becomes useful. Similarly, EMDR “re-formats” memories so that they are stored well and are useful.
How Does It Work?
EMDR is thought to work similarly to REM sleep, the brain’s natural way of processing memory and integrating the information. Bilateral stimulation is delivered to the client in the form of side-to-side eye movements (mimicking REM sleep), gentle tactile vibrations alternating from left to right from egg-shaped handheld devices, and/or sounds played alternatingly in each ear. This alternating stimulation is thought to allow the right and left hemispheres of the brain to communicate in a more efficient way, utilizing the mind’s natural form of healing and processing.
The client is fully awake, conscious, and in control throughout the EMDR process; there is no hypnosis, loss of consciousness or being “put under” involved.
What Does It Look Like?
EMDR is an 8-Phase, Three-Prong approach, examining the past, present, and future.
- Phase 1: History is explored and memories are identified for reprocessing
- Phase 2: Grounding is practiced, and resources are given to help the client feel confident in their ability to self-regulate their emotional state, both in and out of session.
- Phase 3: A specific memory is chosen as the “target”, and a visual image, negative and positive thoughts about the self are identified, and negative emotions, body sensations, and disturbance levels are gauged.
- Phase 4: Bilateral stimulation is delivered as the client recalls the target memory and they are instructed to “just notice” where the brain tends to go without judgment or trying to control; there is no wrong way to do this phase so long as you are open to the process. The therapist closely monitors progress and thought process as this goes and may give you some direction.
- Phase 5: An adaptive thought is paired with the target memory
- Phase 6: The client notices any unusual body sensations, if applicable.
- Phase 7: Closure. You will be reminded that this can be hard work, and that some memories may endure with you as you leave the session. Take note of them and write them down in a log, if asked to do so. You will also be reminded of your resources.
- Phase 8: This phase is a re-evaluation and typically opens a session; you’ll be asked about new thoughts, connections, or dreams that may be indicative of post-session processing.
Are There Risks Involved?
There is some amount of risk involved with any type of therapy; sometimes symptoms are stirred up more while they are being addressed, and you may feel some discomfort as the process goes on. It’s possible that some subconscious memories may become conscious during the EMDR process, or that connections you make may be unwanted or difficult. You may experience some unpleasant emotions or have more vivid dreams; this is part of the brain going through its healing process. For the most part, EMDR has been shown to be a very safe, gentle, well-tolerated, and effective approach to therapy with minimal unpleasant effects. If you have concerns, please discuss them with your therapist.
About the Research
There is a lot of empirically-validated research on EMDR. Studies suggest that EMDR is an effective trauma therapy that works more quickly than CBT or other therapies, producing similar end results. At follow-up appointments, people who received EMDR intervention maintained their progress. For people with a PTSD diagnosis, their symptoms lessened or resolved to the point that they no longer met criteria after a handful of sessions.
EMDR has been shown to work for a variety of problems, including trauma, abuse, childhood abuse, assault, depression, anxiety, addiction, eating disorders, dissociation, performance anxiety, and more. It is a versatile and robust therapy that is effective for a wide variety of people, situations, and problems.