What is EMDR Therapy?
EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) is a special psychotherapeutic technique that can be a very powerful treatment for people who have been emotionally traumatized. EMDR uses eye movements or other alternate hemisphere stimulation to remove the emotional charges of traumatic memories.
As part of EMDR therapy sessions, a therapist may direct you to hold specific memories in mind while tracking the therapist’s hand as it moves back and forth across your field of vision. Diverting your attention in this way while you recall a traumatic event has been found to minimize the emotional response connected to the memory. Researchers believe the therapy activates mechanisms in the brain that help you process the memory and distressing emotions.
Processing Traumatic Memories in the Brain
The brain is naturally wired to help us recover from traumatic events and distressing memories. The healing process involves communication between a variety of brain regions, such as the hippocampus (memory-making center), amygdala (fear center), and prefrontal cortex (behavior center). In some people, however, events can be so traumatic it disrupts the normal flow of neural communication and memories get stuck, making you can feel like you are frozen in time. EMDR helps you get unstuck by restoring the communication process.
What Research Shows About EMDR
Numerous studies show that EMDR therapy offers benefits for emotional trauma and PTSD that typically take years to achieve in psychotherapy alone. A 2014 review of the existing research showed that in some studies, 84% to 90% of people who have experienced a single trauma found relief from PTSD symptoms after just three EMDR sessions that lasted 90 minutes each. In a study by Kaiser Permanente, people who had experienced a single trauma or multiple traumas underwent six 50-minute EMDR sessions. Following the therapy, 100% of the single-trauma patients and 77% of multiple-trauma victims no longer had PTSD.
Based on this growing body of research, the American Psychiatric Association and the Department of Veterans’ Affairs have recognized EMDR therapy as an effective treatment for PTSD. A growing body of research on EMDR therapy shows promising results in its effectiveness for other conditions, such as depression, addictions, and more.
Who Can Benefit from EMDR?
EMDR is primarily used to treat people suffering from emotional trauma, but it is also being used for people struggling with other conditions. People with the following conditions may benefit from EMDR:
- Panic attacks
- Eating disorders
What’s Involved in EMDR Therapy?
EMDR therapy involves 8 phases that incorporate a variety of elements. It includes looking at past memories, current triggers, and skills and behaviors that can help you in the future.
Phase 1: History and Treatment Planning
A therapist will review your history, identify specific memories to target, and create a treatment plan.
Phase 2: Preparation
The therapist will share several techniques to help you cope with any emotional distress that may arise during treatment.
Phases 3: Assessment
During this portion of the treatment, you will be directed to identify three things associated with the targeted memory to be processed:
- a visual image related to the memory
- a negative belief about yourself
- any physical bodily sensations associated with the memory
Phase 4: Desensitization
As you hold these things in mind, the EMDR processing begins. After the therapist performs the hand movements or other stimulation, you will be asked to let your mind go blank. Then you may either return to continue processing that same memory or move on to process other memories.
Phase 5: Installation
Here you replace the negative belief you had about yourself with a positive belief. For example, a victim of assault may go from believing “I am powerless” to believing “I am in control.”
Phase 6: Body Scan
During this phase, your therapist will work with you to resolve any remaining physical tension or bodily sensations related to the memory.
Phase 7: Closure
The therapist will ensure that at the end of each session, you feel better than when it started. Your therapist will also provide you with strategies to help you handle any distressing emotions that come up in between sessions and will ask you to maintain a journal where you write down any issues that arise.
Phase 8: Re-evaluation
At each session, you and your therapist will assess your progress so far and adjust your treatment plan as needed.
Steven’s EMDR Story
To help you understand how EMDR can work for emotional trauma like PTSD, take a look at Steven’s story.
Steven, a 33-year-old bicycle repair mechanic working in Santa Monica, California, took an early lunch on a summer day in 2003 and walked to the local farmer’s market. Within minutes, disaster struck when an 87-year-old man lost control of his car and barreled through the throngs of people at the market. The car was headed straight for Steven, who later said, “I thought he was going to run over my legs…I thought I would lose my legs.”
At the last possible moment, Steven was able to jump out of the way, but 10 people were killed and more than 50 were injured. Traumatized, Steven went back to work. But for months, he couldn’t sleep, and he shook constantly. As in the case of most people who develop PTSD, the Santa Monica farmer’s market disaster was not Steven’s only trauma. He grew up in a severely abusive alcoholic home and also faced death as a tank commander during the Gulf War.
Steven decided to undergo an evaluation and EMDR therapy as a component of his treatment. As part of his assessment, Steven underwent three brain scans using SPECT brain imaging technology—before treatment, during his first EMDR session, and after 8 hours of EDMR treatments.
Initially, his brain showed the classic PTSD pattern, with an extremely active limbic area, basal ganglia, and anterior cingulate. Then with the help of a trained EMDR therapist, Steven began clearing out the traumas—one by one. His brain actually showed benefit during the first treatment and was markedly improved after only 8 hours of treatment. Steven’s shaking had subsided, and he felt significantly better. With EMDR, Steven was able to change his brain and change his life for the better.
Steven was treated at Amen Clinics, where EMDR may be recommended as part of a multifaceted treatment program depending on your needs. We take a whole-person approach to each patient—performing brain imaging tests along with assessing the biological (such as head injuries), psychological (such as emotional traumas), social, and spiritual factors that can contribute to mental health/brain health issues.
If you’re struggling with PTSD or other issues that aren’t responding to treatment and want to learn more about our approach or about EMDR, call today to speak to a specialist at 888-288-9834 or schedule a visit online.