What is EMDR Therapy?
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing therapy–or EMDR–is an extraordinarily effective trauma treatment that uses understanding from neuroscience to help the brain reframe traumatic memories and other forms of emotional suffering.
Traumatic memories or energy are stored in the brain’s encased neural network. The brain cannot use its natural healing processes to sort out the memories, as they are “stuck.” When the memory is activated, the traumatized individual reacts with high levels of anxiety, overwhelm, fear, and distress. The “fight, flight, or flee” system is then switched on in the nervous system. From there, the brain senses an active threat when the memory is triggered.
The autonomic threat response is a survival instinct hard-wired into the brain; in other words, it is not easily or consciously controlled. The individual responds with an array of reactions or behaviors. These may include anxiety, insomnia, flashbacks, intrusive recollections of the event, mistrust, irritability or rage, and even detachment from loved ones.
The outcome of EMDR is integration of a disturbing memory into an “adaptive neural network.” The painful blocks are removed, and the brain’s natural self-healing abilities can begin, transforming the memory into part of narrative memory. Ultimately distancing a problematic experience that happened a long time ago that now has little power anymore.
Is EMDR Effective?
Originally developed by Dr. Francine Shapiro in the late 1980s, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing therapy has become widely recognized for its ability to treat a host of issues.
Some studies show that 84%-90% of single-trauma victims no longer experience post-traumatic stress disorder after three sessions.
Another study, funded by Kaiser Permanente, found that 100% of the single-trauma victims and 77% of multiple trauma victims were no longer diagnosed with PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) after six sessions.
In another study, 77% of combat veterans were free of PTSD in 12 sessions.
EMDR is recognized as an effective treatment for trauma and other distressful experiences by organizations such as the American Psychiatric Association (APA), the World Health Organization (WHO), and the Department of Defense. EMDR is effective for individuals without a PTSD diagnosis as well, who still are impacted by painful memories.
How Does the EMDR Therapy Process Work?
EMDR is a structured, eight-phase approach that allows the client and certified therapist to measure progress and adjust treatment as the therapeutic process evolves. It is designed to give therapists a way of creating a treatment plan that is unique to each individual.
EMDR uses a blend of mindfulness, imagery, cognitive techniques, and emotional regulation skills to help prepare for the more profound work of reprocessing traumatic memories. Additionally, t may include breathwork, mindfulness meditation strategies, visualization, and even somatic approaches.
Generally, some talk therapy is combined in the EMDR process. Talk therapy can build a path toward a greater sense of safety and trust that assists both EMDR and the healing process.
Once a client is familiarized with the process and prepared with effective tools for self-regulation, the eye movement, desensitization, and reprocessing part of EMDR therapy can begin.
The 8-Phases of EMDR Therapy
Phase 1 – Assessment and development of treatment plan. Rather than jumping right into EMDR sessions, individuals need to understand their trauma, the functions of specific activations, and why some memories or reactions to stimuli are intense.
Phase 2 – Learning regulating techniques. Clients must develop adequate coping skills for managing overwhelming emotions, painful memories, and triggers (before, during, and after sessions).
Phase 3 – Guided visualization of memories. This entails the individual assessing a distressful memory, image, belief, or bodily sensation associated with the trauma or a disturbing experience.
Phase 4 – Desensitization through Dual Attention Bilateral Stimulation. While the client focuses on the distressful memory and related thoughts and feelings, the counselor uses bilateral movement/stimulation techniques (rapid eye movements, oscillating tones, alternating vibrations). After sets of bilateral, the counselor asks the client to describe their thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations.
Phase 5 – Reprocessing the distressful memory and tapping-in the positive ideas. The wisdom of the client begins to come forward. The client then begins to shift their mind toward new and positive thoughts and feelings about the traumatic event. Alternating to this more optimistic outlook leads to resolution and healing.
Phase 6 – Body scan for unyielding somatic symptoms. This involves zeroing in on and reducing any lingering physical discomfort that may still be connected to the distressful memory.
Phase 7 – Relaxation and debriefing. Through relaxation techniques, clients are helped to return to a state of settledness. The counselor calls to mind the individual’s self-regulating skills, assesses if they need additional support, and encourages them to document any issue that may arise in between sessions.
Phase 8 – Reevaluating the overall progress and adjusting target as needed. This carries over into the following session(s).
Through this process, clients gain a deeper understanding of themselves and their trauma, helping shift how they respond to emotions, activators, and reminders of the painful experience.
The Unique Benefits of EMDR Therapy
In some ways, emotional suffering can be metaphorically understood as a splinter. If you remove it, the flesh regenerates with healthy, new growth. If the sliver remains embedded and is irritated daily, the discomfort increases. Trauma is like that splinter—a wound that gets stored in the mind and body, changing how a person thinks, feels, and functions in the world
In contrast, most traditional therapeutic models focus on symptom management and cognitive change. EMDR creates healing on an autonomic level, which is fundamentally more effective.
Rather than treating surface issues, EMDR gets to the heart of the matter and removes the splinter instead of putting a bandage over it, taking from traumatic memories and experiencing their emotional charge. These benefits are done without forcing people to relive or discuss in great detail their worst experiences— thus eliminating the risk of doing more harm than good.
A Comprehensive Treatment
EMDR frequently works well with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Attachment, Somatic, Poly Vagal, parts work, and several other modalities. Because of its structured nature, EMDR therapy is often more brief, effective, and comprehensive in its approach to healing. Clients and counselors have a way to measure and visualize progress—and homework is not necessarily involved between sessions. Moreover, EMDR has proven effective for many complex issues, including anxiety and depression, grief and loss, low self-esteem, performance, and trauma/PTSD.
Why I Specialize in EMDR Therapy
I believe that EMDR is a life-changing modality for everyone involved. Clients get to see themselves progress and transform their lives in real-time while I have the honor of guiding that journey and watching people heal.
All therapeutic modalities serve a noble purpose, albeit EMDR attains healing on an entirely different level than most interventions. The depth, scope, and effectiveness of EMDR as a treatment strategy—particularly for trauma and PTSD—is almost unparalleled.
Time and time again, I have seen clients struggling under the heaviest burdens make notable changes through EMDR therapy. I know it works (see some of the feedback testimonials I have received)!
Let Me Help You Change Your Trauma Trajectory
If you’re interested in EMDR treatment and looking for a therapist to help you, please email me (firstname.lastname@example.org) or complete the contact form for your free, 15-minute consultation to see how I may be able to help you.