EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) is a psychotherapy that enables people to heal from the symptoms and emotional distress that are the result of disturbing life experiences. Repeated studies show that by using EMDR people can experience the benefits of psychotherapy that once took years to make a difference. It is widely assumed that severe emotional pain requires a long time to heal. EMDR therapy shows that the mind can in fact heal from psychological trauma much as the body recovers from physical trauma. When you cut your hand, your body works to close the wound. If a foreign object or repeated injury irritates the wound, it festers and causes pain. Once the block is removed, healing resumes. EMDR therapy demonstrates that a similar sequence of events occurs with mental processes. The brain's information processing system naturally moves toward mental health. If the system is blocked or imbalanced by the impact of a disturbing event, the emotional wound festers and can cause intense suffering. Once the block is removed, healing resumes. Using the detailed protocols and procedures learned in EMDR training sessions, clinicians help clients activate their natural healing processes.
Watch this video for a simplified explanation of EMDR and for more information visit EMDRIA.
Research with EMDR
Twenty positive controlled outcome studies have been done on EMDR. Some of the studies show that 84%-90% of single-trauma victims no longer have post-traumatic stress disorder after only three 90-minute sessions. Another study, funded by the HMO Kaiser Permanente, found that 100% of the single-trauma victims and 77% of multiple trauma victims no longer were diagnosed with PTSD after only six 50-minute sessions. In another study, 77% of combat veterans were free of PTSD in 12 sessions. There has been so much research on EMDR that it is now recognized as an effective form of treatment for trauma and other disturbing experiences by organizations such as the American Psychiatric Association, the World Health Organization and the Department of Defense. Given the worldwide recognition as an effective treatment of trauma, you can easily see how EMDR would be effective in treating the “everyday” memories that are the reason people have low self- esteem, feelings of powerlessness, and all the myriad problems that bring them in for therapy. Over 100,000 clinicians throughout the world use the therapy. Millions of people have been treated successfully over the past 25 years.
What is EMDR? Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a non-drug, non-hypnosis psychotherapy procedure. The therapist guides the client in concentrating on a troubling memory or emotion while moving the eyes rapidly back and forth (by following the therapist's fingers). This rapid eye movement, which occurs naturally during dreaming, seems to speed the client's movement through the healing process.
What is it used for? EMDR is used to treat troubling symptoms such as anxiety, depression, guilt, anger, and post-traumatic reactions. It can also be used to enhance emotional resources such as confidence and self-esteem.
What happens in a session? EMDR is different for everyone, because the healing process is guided from within. Sometimes past issues or memories come up, which are related to the current concern. These may also be treated with EMDR, perhaps in the same session. Sometimes a painful memory brings up unpleasant emotions or body sensations. This is normal and generally passes within a few minutes, as long as the EMDR is not stopped. The upsetting emotion or memory often seems to fade into the past and lose its power.
Why bring up a painful memory? When painful memories are avoided, they keep their disturbing power. However, a flashback or nightmare can feel as upsetting and overwhelming as the original experience, yet not be helpful. In therapy, and with EMDR, you can face the memory in a safe setting, so that you do not feel overwhelmed. Then you can get through it and move on.
Will I be in control? It is hard to predict the thoughts, feelings, or memories that might come up during EMDR. It depends upon each individual's natural healing process. You are always in charge of whether to continue or stop. You can also decide how much to tell the therapist about the experience. The therapist serves as a guide to help you stay on track and get the most out of the session, and may encourage you to continue through difficult parts.
Are there any precautions? Yes. There are specific procedures to be followed depending on your presenting problem, emotional stability, medical condition, and other factors. It is very important that the therapist be formally trained in EMDR, and to be competent in trauma-informed therapy. Otherwise, there is a risk that EMDR would be incomplete, ineffective, or even harmful.
What happens afterwards? You may continue to process the material for days or even weeks after the session, perhaps having new insights, vivid dreams, strong feelings, or memory recall. This may feel confusing, but it is just a continuation of the healing process, and should simply be reported to the therapist at the next session. (However, if you become concerned or depressed, you should call your therapist immediately.) As the distressing symptoms fade, you can work with the therapist on developing new skills and ways of coping.
How can I get EMDR treatment? The EMDR International Association (emdria.org) maintains a listing of EMDR-trained therapists. Many of the therapists listed by the Trauma Institute (therapyretreat.org) have been trained in both EMDR and trauma-informed treatment. A referral by someone you know can also be helpful. The therapist you select will talk with you about strategies for helping you; then together you can develop a treatment plan, which may include EMDR.
How can I learn more about EMDR? You can read articles about EMDR on the Trauma Institute’s web site (trauma.info). Another excellent resource is the EMDR International Association (emdria.org).
© 2015 by Ricky Greenwald, PsyD, http://trauma.info, reprinted with permission
Copyright © 2018 Jodi G. Dunphy, LPC - All Rights Reserved.