Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, or EMDR, as it’s often called, is a well-researched technique for helping people recover from traumas and other psychological conditions. The impact of EMDR has been tested several times in scientific studies, and the results suggest its effectiveness for people experiencing various types of traumas (Shapiro, 2014).
The main purpose of EMDR is to help people to reprocess a traumatic event by experiencing bilateral stimulation to reduce the vividness of past trauma. In this article, we will explain the process of EMDR, discuss its benefits, and provide some research data about its benefits for treating psychiatric conditions.
What is EMDR Therapy?
The EMDR Institute defines Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy as psychotherapy that helps people recover from emotional distress caused by disturbing life events. It’s an interactive psychotherapy strategy used to treat traumatic experiences and accompanying maladaptive psychiatric conditions such as PTSD.
EMDR therapy was first introduced in 1987 by American psychologist Francine Shapiro. It was initially developed to treat posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Shapiro discovered a connection between distressing memories and eye movement. She relied on longitudinal research and turned her observations into Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing therapy.
The process of therapy consists of eight phases and it takes approximately 12 sessions to produce the desired result. However, some people need fewer sessions to process the traumatic event. During therapy sessions, professional therapists rely on your eye movements in order to help you recover from traumatic experiences. Specifically, a patient remembers and re-experiences the stressful event and over time, the negative effects of these traumas are reduced.
Studies prove that recalling distressing events is helpful in reducing the effect of trauma because patients are exposed to traumatic experiences without having a strong negative psychological response (Valiente-Gómez et al., 2017). As a result, the memory is less upsetting, and as time goes by, its effects are lessened.
How Does EMDR Work?
EMDR therapy is based on the idea that disturbing memories alter the brain. Consequently, our mind can’t manage anymore to process the information properly, resulting in excessive anxiety. This anxiety takes the form of various psychological conditions like PTSD, depression, panic disorders, or anxiety disorders.
Memorizing stressful events in the process of performing rapid eye movements stimulates our brain to process the information correctly and remove distressing associations.
EMDR therapy consists of the following 8 phases:
Phase 1. History-taking and treatment planning
A therapist starts working by reviewing a client’s case. Usually, it has a form of a small interview including specific questions about the client’s history. The purpose of this initial evaluation is to identify the traumatic event and develop plans for treatment based on the client’s behaviors and symptoms.
Phase 2. Preparation
The therapist explains several techniques for dealing with this stressful event. Some of the techniques include deep breathing, mindfulness, and other strategies for affect management. The client practices the eye movement procedure in order to ensure that he or she is ready for the treatment.
Phase 3. Assessment
The third phase is one of the most important phases of EMDR therapy because, during this phase, the therapist helps the client activate the target memory and assess each component of the memory.
Specifically, the therapist observes behavior, cognition, affect, and body sensations while the client is re-exposed to the memory. The therapist uses two scales in order to assess changes in emotion and cognition: the Subjective Units of Disturbance (SUD) and the Validity of Cognition (VOC).
Phases 4-7. Treatment
After the assessment, the therapist starts using EMDR therapy techniques. The first part of the process is called desensitization where the client is asked to focus on the target memory in the process of doing specific eye movements. It’s called bilateral stimulation. The process continues until the client notices that the memory doesn’t trigger negative emotions anymore.
Then, the therapist introduces the phase of installation where negative emotional thoughts are replaced by positive ones.
The next phase is the body scan. It’s a meditative strategy during which a client tries to observe their physical response from head to toes in order to notice if there’s any residual somatic distress while thinking about the memory.
If the memory was fully processed, the therapist moves on to the phase of closure and ends the session. If a patient feels distressed, the therapist uses the strategies of self-control to ensure safety before the next session starts.
Phase 8. Re-evaluation
During the last phase, the therapist evaluates the client’s psychological state once again and observes the progress. The therapist and the client also discuss additional traumatic effects, if there are any.
Advantages of EMDR: Research Findings
The latest research proves the effectiveness of EMDR therapy in treating various types of mental health issues and especially, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. For example, a 2014 year study shows that EMDR sessions significantly improve the negative emotions associated with trauma. In addition, EMDR treatment turned out to be more effective than trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy (Shapiro, 2014).
The most important advantage of EMDR compared to other forms of psychotherapy is that EMDR is a quick type of treatment as it lasts approximately 12 weeks. However, the length of the therapy depends on the individual and their specific condition. As studies show, sometimes two weeks is enough to notice an improvement in processing trauma.
Besides, the effect of EMDR therapy is usually long-term. As Hase et al. (2015) suggest, people who receive EMDR treatment for depression are less likely to experience a relapse after one year of the therapy. However, more research is needed to prove whether the effects of EMDR are persistent for a longer period of time.
What Conditions are Treated by EMDR?
EMDR therapy is most frequently used to help people recover from PTSD and other trauma-related symptoms. However, there is a wide range of mental health conditions that can be treated by EMDR therapy.
Here are the most common conditions treated by EMDR:
- PTSD and other trauma-related problems
- Anxiety disorders, phobias, and panic attacks
- Depression and other mood disorders
- Eating disorders
- Sleep disturbance
- Addictions and substance use
- Personality disorders
- Chronic pain
- Self-esteem problems
- Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
To sum up, EMDR therapy is a proven method to process past trauma and improve your psychological well-being. It’s been more than two decades since EMDR is used for dealing with various types of traumatic events and other mental health conditions and a growing number of studies suggest its effectiveness. EMDR therapy is recommended by the American Psychological Association, the World Health Organization, and the American Psychiatric Association as a powerful form of treatment.
As the founder of EMDR therapy, Francine Shapiro says, “Changing the memories that form the way we see ourselves also changes the way we view others. Therefore, our relationships, job performance, what we are willing to do or are able to resist, all move in a positive direction.”
But keep in mind that EMDR can’t be performed without help from a professional therapist. If you’re interested in receiving EMDR therapy, reach out to the fully trained EMDR therapists at Health for Life Counseling Grand Rapids.