Have you had no luck healing trauma with talk therapy? EMDR or Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing is a unique form of psychotherapy that differs from most talk therapies. It is useful in treating lasting symptoms from traumatic experiences and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and also anxiety and depression symptoms. This explains what is EMDR Therapy, but how does it work?
The aim of EMDR is to walk you through your traumatic experience in a way that rewires the brain to react differently to memories of the event in the future. Specifically, EMDR therapy changes the way that you store traumatic memories in your brain. Once your brain properly processes the memory, you can remember the traumatic events without experiencing intense emotional reactions. EMDR often produces faster results than other traditional psychotherapy methods.
How Was EMDR Developed?
The EMDR method was developed by Francine Shapiro, an American psychotherapist. The catalyst event for developing the method was an experience she had as a graduate student in 1987. While thinking about a traumatic memory while walking in a park, she noticed that the disturbing thoughts suddenly decreased significantly in their negative intensity. She then realized that it happened after a series of spontaneous eye movements from side to side and then up and down on the diagonal.
To test her observation, Shapiro started to move her eyes while focusing on different unpleasant thoughts and sad memories. Again, the negative thoughts lost their intensity. Curious about this phenomenon, she then asked other people to do the same. She asked them to bring disturbing memories to mind while moving the eye as she had done. The results were striking. Their anxiety level about the memories decreased, and the participants reported handling distressing situations more calmly and realistically.
Shapiro went on to do further research about her observations, even basing her doctoral dissertation on the research. Her study and method, initially called Eye Movement Desensitization (EMD), was published in a professional journal, and other clinicians began replicating her studies and doing EMD with their own patients.
How Does EMDR Work?
EMDR can be used to treat traumatic stress, PTSD, and anxiety because severe mental trauma and stress block the activity of what Shapiro calls the adaptive information processing system. In these cases, traumatic memories and behavioral reactions do not receive their adaptive resolution. Memories can be so painful or overwhelming that they “freeze” you in that moment. People, places, and events then continue to trigger the emotions of the trauma long after it has passed.
EMDR works on the natural tendency of the brain to heal itself from traumatic memories. However, mental blocks such as self-disgust, feelings of powerlessness, and self-esteem issues can block the healing process. You are allowed to process the bad memories and heal yourself during EMDR. The resulting feelings may not be as intense as before the therapy.
Eye movements used during EMDR launch the processes that activate the accelerated processing of traumatic experiences. Your eye movements done in a repetitive series lead to unblocking of an isolated neural network of the brain where traumatic experiences are stored.
EMDR – Eight Phases
There are eight phases of Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing:
- History and treatment planning: You will describe the trauma and associated feelings with a therapist who will then work with you to develop a treatment plan.
- Preparation: The therapist will give you information about EMDR therapy. They will also help you practice eye movements.
- Assessment: The goal of phase 3 is to identify and evaluate the memory causing your emotional distress. The therapist may teach you various imagery and stress reduction techniques that you can use during and between sessions.
- Desensitization: During this phase you will focus on your memory. Simultaneously you will engage in eye movements. As you progress, new thoughts, feelings, images, and body sensations may emerge, and the memory loses its negative charge
- Installation: This phase pairs your memory to a new, life-giving, positive belief. For example, “I survived it and I am strong” rather than the former belief of “I am disgusting and weak’.
- Body Scan: You will focus on your trauma and determine if you feel the same as you did before EMDR.
- Closure: During the close of the session you’ll learn what to expect from one session to the next and techniques to deal with feelings or new memories that emerge.
- Reevaluation: The next session starts with this phase where the therapist evaluates your current psychological state, ensures the effects of treatment are still maintained, and addresses any new memories that may have emerged since the last session.
Each EMDR session is usually between 60-90 minutes. You have the ability to stop your provider at any time if you need to.
Although this technique was discovered by chance, in less than 20 years it has become utilized worldwide. EMDR has more research devoted to it than any other psychotherapeutic technique for trauma. It is considered a first-line treatment of choice for trauma by many organizations, including the American Psychiatric Association, the World Health Organization, the U.S. Department of Defense, and the U.S. Veterans Administration among others.
With so much research behind it, contemporary psychologists and counselors now have a better understanding of how EMDR works. You can use it to treat PTSD from military combat, victims of violence, and people suffering from phobias, panic attacks, and dissociative disorders.
Side Effects of EMDR
Some people experience realistic or vivid dreams, lightheadedness, or an increased sense of awareness in the first day or two after an EMDR session. It is also common to feel large waves of emotion, especially if you have experienced depression. These side effects may sound alarming but they are completely normal. As you would expect to feel some pain or swelling around an injury on your body as it heals, these side effects indicate that your brain is reprocessing and healing.
It’s important that your nervous system have enough capacity to experience some negative charge, because you may experience a significant amount of discomfort confronting your traumatic event as you work through it. Your brain wants to cling to the familiarity of its old ways of thinking, even if the old ways are deeply harmful. So be honest with your EMDR therapist about how much distress you can handle. They can adjust their approach to ensure the process is not re-traumatizing to you.
How Long Does EMDR Take to Work?
The time it takes to reprocess trauma is different for everyone. However, there are a few factors that have an effect on how long it may take. If you are seeking treatment after a single traumatic event such as an accident, the process may be quick – perhaps just a few sessions. People undergoing treatment for prolonged trauma such as abuse or childhood trauma may take significantly longer. This is because during prolonged and ongoing trauma, your brain has more time to develop many neural connections that later lead to negative emotions. Single occurrences, while still impactful, don’t give the brain as much time to form these connections.
Do You Need an EMDR Therapist?
At Life Care Wellness we can help you work through PTSD, anxiety, depression, or other effects of your traumatic experiences. We have trained EMDR therapists who can help you to heal. If you are in the northern Illinois area, please call us at 630-423-5935 to schedule an appointment online or in our offices in Glen Ellyn, Chicago (Jefferson Park), or Sycamore.
~ Rhonda Kelloway, LCSW, SEP
Rhonda Kelloway is the owner and principal therapist of Life Care Wellness, a group psychotherapy practice in Glen Ellyn, Sycamore, and Chicago (Jefferson Park neighborhood), Illinois. She is a trauma specialist utilizing a Somatic Experiencing framework to utilize the body’s wisdom in healing. She also uses EMDR and a variety of traditional psychotherapy approaches in her work.