Things to know about EMDR Therapy

EMDR stands for Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing. It is a technique that some psychotherapists use to treat people experiencing psychological distress and is recommended for those with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

EMDR was developed in the late 1980s by an American psychologist named Francine Shapiro. Practitioners initially used this technique to treat people with traumatic memories, but it is now used to help treat a variety of issues, including:

  • Phobias
  • PTSD
  • Anxiety
  • Chronic Pain
  • Depression

During a standard EMDR treatment session, the client’s will recall traumatic experiences while moving their eyes back and forth while the therapist directs the eye movement. The main focus is to allow people to process and integrate their traumatic memories into their standard memories to remember times of distress while being distracted, which in turn can be less upsetting. The aim of the process is that over time, the exposure to those memories should reduce their effects. EMDR is similar in some respects to cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which is another type of PTSD treatment that involves remembering or discussing traumatic events and identifying and altering those thoughts. 

How it works
The theory behind EMDR is that traumatic memories can make changes in the brain and can stop the brain from processing information properly, which causes anxiety and intrusive thoughts. Experts believe that remembering traumatic experiences while doing rapid eye movements can allow the brain to process those memories correctly and integrate them into the person’s life in a healthy way. EMDR therapy consists of eight phases.

Phase 1: Client history and treatment planning
The therapist will evaluate the client’s case and their ability to tolerate the exposure to their distressing memories. They will also formulate a treatment plan based on the client’s symptoms and behaviors that are needing modifying.

Phase 2: Preparation
The therapist will lay the groundwork for the treatment by establishing a therapeutic relationship with the client and educating them on the process of EMDR. They will teach the client self-control techniques that are used to cope with distressing memories that arise.

Phase 3: Assessment
This phase will consist of the therapist identifying the traumatic memories that the client needs to address. The client will choose an image to represent each memory and noting the negative beliefs and physical sensations for each of those memories. They will then identify a positive thought to replace negative beliefs.

Phase 4: Desensitization
Desensitization involves reducing the client’s disturbing reactions to traumatic memories, including physical sensations they have when thinking about it. This could include rapid heart rate, sweating, or stomach problems. The therapist will facilitate desensitization by directing the client’s eye movement while they focus on traumatic events.

Phase 5: Installation
This stage focuses on installing positive thoughts that the client identified in phase 3.

Phase 6: Body Scan
Body scanning is a meditative technique in which a person scans their body from head to toe to notice physical sensations that are occurring. The therapist will target those physical sensations for further processing.

Phase 7: Closure
At the end of each session, the therapist will stabilize the client by using the self-control techniques that were discussed in phase 2. The therapist will then explain what the client can expect between sessions and will ask the client to keep a record of any negative experiences that occur so they can be targeted at the next meeting.

Phase 8: Reevaluation
The final stage will consist of a review regarding the effectiveness of the treatment so far. The therapist and client will identify any additional traumatic effects that need to be targeted.

Benefits of EMDR
Most research done on EMDR, they look at the benefits for people with PTSD and other trauma-related symptoms. Studies also suggested that EMDR may also treat symptoms that accompany traumatic experiences like self-harm, stress, and anger. Some people will choose to have other treatment options alongside EMDR therapy. Other issues EMDR may be beneficial to treat, and practitioners have used it to address issues including:

  • Addiction
  • Anxiety
  • Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
  • Chronic Pain and Phantom Pain
  • Depression
  • Eating Disorders
  • Panic Attacks
  • Psychotic Symptoms
  • Self-Esteem Issues
  • Stress-Induced Flare-Ups of Skin Problems
  • Psychotic Symptoms
  • Chronic Pain

In some studies that have been done, as many as 90% of trauma survivors appeared to have no PTSD symptoms after three sessions, and some showed positive outcomes for the majority of participants after 6-12 sessions. It has also been indicated that EMDR may be useful for other mental health issues such as psychotic symptoms like hallucinations, delusions, anxiety, depression, and self-esteem issues. As with any treatment, EMDR can cause side effects such as an increase in distressing memories, heightened emotions, or physical sensations during sessions, lightheadedness, and vivid dreams, but will typically resolve as treatment continues. Any side effects should be reported to the therapist performing the EMDR session. 

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