Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a one-on-one form of psychotherapy that is designed to reduce symptoms of
- Trauma-related stress
- Depression associated with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- To improve overall mental health functioning[i]
According to the Mayo Clinic, EMDR combines “exposure therapy” with a series of guided eye movements that help a person process traumatic memories and change how he or she reacts to those memories.[ii]
EMDR is widely used by psychotherapists with adult trauma survivors, PsychCentral.com reports, including war veterans, abuse and rape survivors, and accident and disaster survivors. EMDR is also used with traumatized children and with adults suffering from severe anxiety or depression.[iii]
EMDR was developed in 1989 and now an estimated 100,000 mental health practitioners in all 50 states have participated in EMDR trainings, with millions of clients having received EMDR therapy, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA) National Registry of Evidence-based Programs and Practices. Outside the United States, EMDR has been implemented in over 70 countries, the registry reports. Evaluations of EMDR have been conducted in the United States and in over 30 other countries.[iv]
What is the Treatment Like?
PsychCentral.com explains that in EMDR a qualified therapist guides the client in vividly but safely recalling distressing past experiences (“desensitization”) and gaining new understanding of the events, the bodily and emotional feelings, and the thoughts and self-images associated with them (“reprocessing”). The “eye movement” aspect of EMDR involves the client moving his or her eyes in a back-and-forth manner while recalling the event or events.[v]
Before treatment begins, the EMDR therapist reviews the client’s history and assesses the client’s readiness for EMDR. SAMHSA explains: “During the preparation phase, the therapist works with the client to identify a positive memory associated with feelings of safety or calm that can be used if psychological distress associated with the traumatic memory is triggered. The target traumatic memory for the treatment session is accessed with attention to image, negative belief, and body sensations.”
Then, “repetitive 30-second dual-attention exercises are conducted in which the client attends to a motor task while focusing on the target traumatic memory and then on any related negative thoughts, associations and body sensations.”
The most common motor task used is side-to-side eye movements that follow the therapist’s finger. Other methods include alternating hand tapping or auditory tones through headphones. The exercises are repeated until the client reports no emotional distress. The therapist then asks the client to focus on a positive belief about the traumatic incident, which the person does while continuing to do the exercises. This goes on until the client reports “comfortable feelings and a positive sense of self when recalling the target trauma.”
Next, the therapist and client review the client’s progress and discuss scenarios or contexts that might trigger psychological distress. These triggers and positive images for appropriate future action are also targeted and processed. In addition, SAMHSA continues, the therapist asks the client to keep a journal, noting any material related to the traumatic memory, and to focus on the previously identified positive safe or calm memory whenever psychological distress associated with the traumatic memory is triggered.
EMDR is typically delivered in 60- to 90-minute sessions, although shorter sessions have been used successfully, SAMHSA says. How many sessions are needed is usually dependent on the complexity of the trauma being treated. For instance, an isolated, single traumatic event may only need a few sessions, but if the trauma involves repeated traumatic events, such as combat trauma and physical, sexual or emotional abuse, many more sessions may be needed for comprehensive treatment.[vi]
What are the Effects of EMDR?
PsychCentral.com reports studies have shown that being treated using EMDR can include these benefits:[vii]
- Feeling less troubled by trauma memories and reminders while awake and in dreams
- Feeling able to cope with trauma memories and reminders without simply trying to avoid troubling thoughts, conversations, people, activities or places
- Feeling more able to enjoy pleasurable activities and to be emotionally involved in relationships, as well as feeling that there is a future to look forward to
- Feeling less tense, stressed, irritable or angry, easily startled and on-guard, and more able to sleep restfully, concentrate on activities, and deal with pressure and conflict
- Feeling less anxious, worried, fearful or phobic, and prone to panic attacks
- Feeling less depressed (down and blue, hopeless, worthless, emotionally drained or suicidal)
- Feeling an increased sense of self-esteem and self-confidence
Psycentral.com warns, however, that EMDR is not a certain cure, nor always effective. In even the most successful studies approximately 25 percent to 33 percent of participants report no clear benefit.[viii] EMDR’s most consistent benefit is helping clients to feel better about themselves because they feel less troubled by and more able to cope with trauma memories.
Is EMDR Right For You?
For more information on EMDR and the many other treatments available, contact our admissions coordinators, who are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
[ii] “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder: Treatment and Drugs” Mayo Clinic staff, April 15, 2014, www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/post-traumatic-stress-disorder/basics/treatment/con-20022540
[iii] “Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing,” PsychCentral.com, Jan. 30, 2013, psychcentral.com/lib/eye-movement-desensitization-and-reprocessing