What is EMDR?
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) Therapy is a well-researched and internationally used therapeutic approach for helping those who have experienced a wide variety of emotional traumas and distressing memories. The eight (8) phases of EMDR treat the traumatized person using the natural healing powers of the brain toward building more adaptive resolutions as part of the relief process. EMDR targets upsetting life experiences that have not been stored properly in memory areas of the brain and are triggered more easily by similar events or negative personal beliefs. Unprocessed or blocked traumatic memories need help from therapies such as EMDR to become processed or unblocked.
Is EMDR Right for You?
EMDR therapy can be conducted in conjunction with other forms of therapy, including Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) and Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT). This treatment has been used to reduce or eliminate traumatic and distressing memories/experiences in clients of all ages.
EMDR’s goal is to greatly reduce or even eliminate recurring and overwhelming symptoms, including nightmares and flashbacks, commonly associated with abuse, neglect, illness, accidents, assault, grief, and other events perceived as traumatic. EMDR has been successfully used in treating a wide variety of mental health issues, including anxiety, panic, and depression symptoms as well as the emotional triggers associated with drug/alcohol cravings. This is especially true if traumatic or distressing memories are involved in perpetuating a disorder.
8 Phases of EMDR
Earlier traumatic memories receive priority using EMDR therapy, working up the memory chain to more recent memories. Each memory, moving from past to more recent traumatic events, is given individualized attention in separate sessions. Additionally, EMDR treatment includes reinforcement of more positive expectations of similar future events. As past and present memories are given the attention they deserve during EMDR treatment, there may be shifts in a client’s belief system, moving from negative to more positive expectations of self and the future.
Phase 1: Involves the therapist taking a thorough history of the trauma(s) experienced by a client in addition to determining the symptoms associated with each trauma.
Phase 2: In phase two, the therapist prepares a person for EMDR therapy by assessing his/her ability to deal with emotional distress. A therapist will teach the client the skills necessary to handle any emotional distress associated with memories of the trauma both during and between sessions. These skills will include imagery techniques, regular self-care, and emotional regulation techniques.
Phase 3-6: First, the client will be asked to identify a core/key visual image related to their trauma, a negative belief about self, and report any related emotions and/or body sensations that occur while thinking about this trauma. The therapist will ask the client to simultaneously hold together the negative belief and traumatic memory while processing occurs through side to side eye movements, tapping, or tones done to stimulate both sides of the body (the Bilateral Stimulation or BLS). After each BLS, the therapist will ask the client to report any changes that may occur while the client mentally pairs the trauma and negative belief. Once the client reports no more disturbance while simultaneously thinking about the negative belief and trauma, a more positive belief will be identified and then installed as part of an improved belief system. Typically, multiple, and repeated sets of BLS are done to ensure that distress associated with both the negative and positive beliefs has disappeared. The client will be ready to begin working on a new traumatic memory using EMDR therapy once a final body scan reveals no more tension, tightness, or an unusual sensation while thinking about the traumatic event as a last step.
Phase 7: During this phase, or Closure, the therapist reminds the client to maintain a log during the following week of any new memories, thoughts, or dreams related to the memory processed in the session. The client also reminds the client to practice self-care and other strategies from phase 2, where emotional regulation was improved.
Phase 8: In this phase, the therapist reevaluates recent EMDR treatment and its effect, possibly continuing to focus on the most recent memory or move on to a new memory.
How Long Does EMDR Take to Work?
EMDR therapy can be accomplished in one session, about 60 minutes, for one disturbing memory in a chain of other traumatic memories. However, several sessions may be needed to help with one memory and a chain of related memories. Estimates suggest that 8-12 sessions may be sufficient to treat simpler traumas, while more sessions may be necessary for multiple and complex traumas.
According to the EMDR Institute, Inc., studies on EMDR therapy with a single trauma show significant benefits after only three 90-minute sessions. A study funded by the HMO Kaiser Permanente demonstrated that 100% of the single-trauma victims and 77% of people experiencing multiple traumas were no longer diagnosed with PTSD after only six 50-minute sessions.
Marcus, S., Marquis, P., & Sakai, C (2004). Three- and 6-Month Follow-Up of EMDR Treatment of PTSD in an HMO Setting. International Journal of Stress Management, 11(3), 195-208.
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