Learn / What Is Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), and Can It Work for You?
Talking about trauma isn’t easy—it’s often emotionally draining, and it can even be retraumatizing. That’s why alternative therapies like EMDR can be a helpful part of your treatment plan.
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) uses eye movements to reframe traumatic memories. While that might seem unusual, this therapy works for many people and can be effective in a short amount of time. Rehabs often use EMDR as a supplemental therapy to ease the intensity of trauma symptoms.
EMDR is a trauma treatment technique1 that helps you process disturbing memories. It was developed by psychologist Francine Shapiro, who got the idea while walking in a park. She noticed certain rapid eye movements decreased the intensity of her intrusive thoughts. Then she realized something important: if she controlled her eye movements while thinking about an upsetting memory, it reduced her anxious feelings.
Since then, EMDR has gained popularity. More clinicians are becoming certified to practice it, and more people are trying it.
Tony Tan, CEO of 180 Sanctuary At PuriPai Villa, explains its premise:
“Basically, we are using eye movement to desensitize and reprocess traumatic memories. We don’t erase the memory, but we can reduce the impact of the response.
Usually with someone who’s traumatized, their behavior seems to be paralyzed. When they can’t overcome certain kinds of strong emotions or flashbacks, that affects their daily functionality.
“So EMDR is mainly administered in treatment to help the person reduce their response to traumatic memories, to help them function better day-to-day. They can coexist with their memory, but we dull the traumatic response.”
EMDR sessions usually last for about 50 to 90 minutes. Your therapist will help you determine how many sessions are necessary. This usually depends on the severity of your trauma.
People with PTSD often experience flashbacks resulting from triggers related to a traumatic event. EMDR helps patients reprocess memories3 so they’re not as easily distressed when faced with those triggers.
Roger Rodriguez, a senior flight nurse who often went into life-threatening combat war zones, was diagnosed with PTSD4 after years in the field. Rodriguez said that after each session, he felt a “little weight” lifted off his shoulders. Eventually, he went from spending hours alone in his room to once again being the family man that everyone knew and loved.
“My traumatic thoughts don’t come to the forefront of my everyday life and consume my thoughts,” he said. “They have been processed and placed into long-term memory where they belong.”
Trauma recovery has its challenges, but life on the other side of healing is so worth it. And in rehab, you’ll be surrounded by professionals who can help you see those challenges through in a safe and supported way.
Discover rehab centers with EMDR treatment to compare programs and speak with experts about trauma therapies that can help you.
Reviewed by Rajnandini Rathod
In this phase, your clinician will review your trauma history and create a treatment plan. This plan determines which memories and situations to focus on during EMDR, and in what order. For example, you may focus on childhood trauma first, and move onto adult issues later.
Your therapist explains how treatment works and addresses any concerns you have. You’ll decide on a stop signal if you need to take a break from processing. You’ll also work together to develop coping mechanisms like stress reduction techniques, which you can practice using between sessions.
Revisiting traumatic experiences can be emotional, so it’s perfectly alright if you need to pause.
In this phase, you’ll visualize the traumatic event. Your therapist might ask you to write down all of your memories related to the trauma. Then, you’ll rate how uncomfortable each event made you feel, usually on a scale of 1 to 10. After that exercise, you’ll discuss any feelings, thoughts, or sensations it brought up. You may choose one memory to focus on in future sessions.
This is the heart of EMDR, where you’ll learn to reprocess your trauma and become less sensitive to it. You’ll do this using what’s known as bilateral stimulation:
Your therapist will use one of the above techniques while you focus on an image, thought, emotion, or sensation related to the trauma. At the end of each set, they’ll ask you to let your mind go blank, and to notice whatever comes to mind. During this stage, you might experience the following:
Throughout the session, your therapist might use techniques like these to bring you back to the present moment if you start to feel overwhelmed:
Before you leave a session, your therapist will guide you through relaxation techniques to help reinstate emotional stability. You can also use these in between sessions. Your therapist might ask you to keep a log to record any related thoughts, feelings, or sensations that arise the week after your session.
Each session may start with a follow-up from the prior one. Your therapist can use this time to ask for feedback and evaluate your progress. This helps determine if you need to keep working on the same issues, or move on to new ones.
EMDR is often recommended for PTSD, ((Recommendations | Post-traumatic stress disorder | Guidance | NICE. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.nice.org.uk/guidance/ng116/chapter/recommendations
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