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Treating Trauma: How Does EMDR Work?

EMDR therapy, or Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, is becoming more and more common in treating a variety of psychological disorders, particularly those with a trauma component, and it’s common for people considering treatment to wonder: How does EMDR work? 

The simplest way to explain EMDR is that it’s a specialized psychotherapy that utilizes bilateral brain activation to alleviate the distress associated with difficult or traumatic memories. The goal of EMDR is to allow patients to heal from these distressing memories by helping them identify triggers and reprocess the experience in a more positive light. In therapeutic practice, EMDR works on changing the emotions, thoughts, and behaviors resulting from the traumatic experience. 

While EMDR is relatively new compared to other therapy methods, clinical trials have shown that the EMDR success rate is quite high. The treatment often helps patients heal from their psychological trauma much faster than other psychotherapy options.

What Happens During EMDR Treatment

There can be initial apprehension about what happens during EMDR treatment, and that’s understandable: Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing can seem pretty complex. In reality, from a patient’s perspective, the process is really quite simple, encompassing the past, present, and future–reprocessing past events, dealing with current distress, and developing skills for positive future responses. The process can be broken down into an eight-phase treatment approach: 

PHASE 1: In the first phase of EMDR therapy, your therapist will gather information about you and your past to identify possible targets for EMDR processing.  

PHASE 2: After phase 1 comes the focus on preparation and education. Your therapist will talk with you about what will happen during the EMDR sessions and what to expect afterward. They’ll provide tools and techniques for managing your emotions during and after the sessions.   

PHASE 3: At this stage in the process, you’ll identify the specific memory you want to reprocess. Then, with the help of your therapist, you’ll identify the negative feelings the event created and the positive beliefs you’d like to replace them with.

PHASE 4: During this phase, you’ll be instructed to focus on something related to the event, often an image, negative thought, or body sensation, while simultaneously engaging with bilateral stimulation in the form of eye movements, body taps, or audible tones. This phase can vary slightly for each patient. Generally, your therapist will instruct you to let your mind go and take note of spontaneous thoughts or emotions, a process that will repeat many times throughout a session. 

PHASE 5: Again, your therapist will direct your attention to how you feel. Specifically, whether any negative symptoms are still present while processing the memory. This allows you to identify your progress as the EMDR therapy continues.

PHASE 6: Once there’s no related distress from the targeted memory, the installation process begins. Again utilizing a tone, tap, or finger to stimulate bilateral brain activity, the therapist will help you focus on the positive belief you want to install while processing the memory.

PHASE 7: The seventh phase of the process is about establishing a bridge between sessions. The therapist will reinforce ways to control your negative emotions. They may also have you keep a log, recording any related events or feelings that may arise. Most importantly, they’ll ensure you feel calm and safe before a session ends.

PHASE 8: The final stage of the EMDR treatment concludes at the beginning of the next session and consists primarily of examining the progress made thus far.

What to Expect After EDMR Treatment 

By reconciling emotions and thoughts associated with significant trauma, EMDR therapy can help desensitize you to the traumatic event, resulting in increased feelings of relief, confidence, and self-assuredness.

Regarding what to expect after EMDR is finished, most patients report immense relief and no longer being subjected to the intrusive images, negative thoughts, or overwhelming emotions present with the specific memory. After each individual EMDR session, however, participants may feel tired, or a bit drained of energy. Remember that it’s entirely normal, and that you may discuss other post-session feelings or responses with your therapist as needed. 

 Does EMDR Work for Everyone?

Although no form of psychotherapy is 100% effective for all people, the EMDR success rate is encouraging. In fact, most studies have found that EMDR therapy—which was originally used exclusively to treat patients suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)—is effective in treating a wide range of trauma-based disorders, including:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Dissociative Disorders
  • Personality Disorders
  • Gender Dysphoria
  • Eating Disorders
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorders

If you think you might be suffering from any of the above and would like to learn more about reprocessing negative events to relieve your current distress, contact Retreat Behavioral Health to see if EMDR therapy might be right for you.