What is EMDR? It’s seems to have caught a lot of attention in the mental health world in recent years, and for good reason. I have received endless amounts of positive feedback from clients that after years of putting “Band-Aids” on their emotional wounds with coping skills, they finally feel that they have healed from their trauma thanks to EMDR.
EMDR stands for eye movement desensitization and reprocessing. EMDR is a psychotherapy approach developed by American psychologist Francine Shapiro, PhD, in the 1980’s.
EMDR was originally found to be helpful with war veterans who were experiencing PTSD. It has since been proven to reduce symptoms related to several things including; depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, trauma, sexual assault, addictions, phobias, eating disorders, grief and loss, chronic illness, personality and dissociative disorders, sleep disturbance, and more. EMDR is an evidence-based psychotherapy and is recognized as a first-choice treatment for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder by the World Health Organization. The EMDR Institute, Inc. states that “EMDR is a psychotherapy that enables people to heal from symptoms and emotional distress that are the result of disturbing life experiences.”
Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy is designed to resolve unprocessed traumatic memories in the brain. When we experience a distressing event, our natural fight, flight, or freeze stress response is activated. During these times, our amygdala, the alarm signal for stressful events in our brain, has taken over. This can cause these disturbing events to remain stored in our brains in a way that these upsetting images, thoughts, and emotions may be triggered and create overwhelming feelings of being back in the moment at any time. The hippocampus and prefrontal cortex need to be recruited in trauma processing to help the disturbing memory to be integrated in a way that the memory is not erased, yet the fight, flight, or freeze response is resolved. EMDR helps us to do this.
EMDR gives attention to the past, present, and future. Past disturbing memories and events are processed, as well as current situations that cause distress, plus developing skills and attitudes for positive future actions.
EMDR is an eight-phase treatment approach. Phase one is history-taking. This is when a treatment plan is developed and possible EMDR targets are identified. Phase two is resource building. This is when the client learns and develops several different ways of handling emotional distress and grounding. Phase three is assessing the target memory, and identifying an image, negative belief about self, and related emotions and body sensations. Phases four through seven are processing the memory using eye movements or other chosen forms of bilateral stimulation. Between sets of bilateral stimulation, client will report back whatever thoughts, feelings, images, or body sensations they notice, and then are instructed to follow what comes to mind. This is repeated until the client reports no distress related to the original memory. Session is closed with a body scan and client is asked to document anything significant that arises between sessions. Phase eight is evaluation of treatment results. This is when a new EMDR target may be identified, or client may decide that no additional processing in needed.
While EMDR is not for everyone and certainly not the only trauma therapy available, research continues to prove its efficacy. EMDR must be done with a trained and licensed professional, and great attention and care should be given to ensure that clients remain within their window of tolerance while processing. However, due to this unique approach, and incorporating images, thoughts, emotions, and body sensations, EMDR tends to be a quicker intervention and clients may see results and decrease in distress much sooner than with typical talk therapy.