What is EMDR and How Does it Work?
What is EMDR Therapy and How Does It Work?
EMDR, which stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, can sound like a strange new experimental technique when you first hear about it. Moving your eyes around to process buried trauma? That must be a hoax, right?
Absolutely wrong, it turns out. EMDR is far from a hoax; in fact, it’s been proven time and time again to be effective in reducing the symptoms of different mental health disorders, especially PTSD. If, like many people in the world, you’ve been curious about trying this innovative therapy technique out for yourself, this guide will help you understand what EMDR therapy is and how it works.
What is EMDR Used For?
The creator of EMDR, Dr. Francine Shapiro1, originally created it as a therapy technique to heal from trauma - especially buried trauma. Traumatic experiences live in the mind, yes - but they also live in our bodies. “The body never forgets,” they say, meaning that we often store our most traumatic experiences in the physical realm even as our minds work hard to repress them.
Dr. Shapiro noticed one day back in the 1980s - coincidentally and miraculously, the story goes - that moving her eyes from one side to another seemed to help her process some of her own distressing memories. She kept adding to her theory and the practice of EMDR until it became a comprehensive therapy technique.
Nowadays, EMDR is a complete psychotherapy method that includes bilateral eye movements or other types of bilateral stimulation as well as practices rooted in CBT and mindfulness.
How Effective is EMDR for PTSD?
In the decades since the 1980s when Dr. Shapiro first discovered it, an enormous amount of research has been conducted to test the efficiency of EMDR therapy, especially for patients with PTSD.
The results of this research show us that - as unbelievable as it can sound at first - EMDR is incredibly effective in reducing PTSD symptoms. In fact, it’s so effective many reputable organizations have named it as one of the evidence-based practices for the treatment of PTSD (including the American Psychiatric Association2, the Department of Veterans’ Affairs3, and the World Health Organization4).
One meta-analysis5 showed that across multiple studies, EMDR was proven to be faster and more effective at reducing post-traumatic symptoms than other trauma treatments. It also was an effective treatment regardless of the person’s culture or ethnicity.
What Else Can EMDR Help With?
PTSD is far from the only thing that EMDR is helpful for, although that’s what has the most research behind it.
EMDR is now used to treat a wide variety of mental health conditions, including:
- Addiction and Substance Use Disorders
- Eating Disorders
- Panic Attacks
Although there isn’t as much research on the effectiveness of EMDR for these conditions as there is for PTSD, the general idea is that unpleasant memories can be the underlying root of all mental health disorders. Think about it: if you were to be able to work through unhappy events that led to your addiction in the first place, wouldn’t recovery be easier?
How Does EMDR Therapy Work?
EMDR, in a nutshell, helps to reduce the intensity of traumatic memories (as well as the associated negative thoughts and distressing emotions) through the process of systematically moving your eyes from side to side while being guided by a therapist. The therapist’s guidance is crucially important; although the eye movements are a key process in EMDR, the psychotherapy technique also includes CBT and mindfulness components.
So how does moving your eyes from side to side help you process traumatic memories? Does that actually work, or is it a hoax? Well, the research tells us that yes, EMDR does actually work - here’s everything you need to know about how.
What Does EMDR Do to the Brain?
The interesting thing about the research that supports EMDR is this: there is overwhelming evidence that it does, indeed, work, but no one seems to know exactly how.
Dr. Shapiro’s theory6 is that EMDR interacts with our brains’ information-processing system; Somehow, through the eye movements, the brain learns to associate healthier thinking patterns with the memory of the experience. The maladaptive emotions and habits are unlearned.
Some people believe7 that it’s the “D” of EMDR, desensitization, that’s key. During an EMDR session, people talk about their traumatic memories while their attention is diverted (through the focus on eye movements). Some experts think that this diversion of attention helps to quickly desensitize the client to the emotional power of the memory.
Other people have theorized that the eye movements actually serve to somehow decrease anxiety reactions in the brain. When anxiety is reduced, then the traumatic memory feels much less disturbing.
The only thing that’s 100% certain about how EMDR works in the brain is that we need more research studying this incredible phenomenon to gain a more complete understanding.
How Long Does It Take for EMDR to Work?
The exact number of EMDR sessions it will take to start seeing improvements in your symptoms depends largely on your individual situation. For example, have you only experienced one trauma or a lifetime of them?
In general, though, experts agree that most people should at least start to see some improvements in their symptoms, if not process the traumatic memory completely, in 6 to 12 sessions2. This might be a surprisingly small amount of time for people who are used to thinking about traditional talk therapy as a lifetime commitment.
Some people have even reported seeing improvement in their symptoms after as little as 3 EMDR sessions. If you’ve been through years of traditional talk therapy and haven’t been seeing the progress you’d expected, this might be a good sign that it’s time to give EMDR therapy a try.
Can EMDR Be Harmful?
EMDR, in general, is considered to be a very safe treatment8 with few side effects. It’s important, though, to make sure you’re in the right mindset to participate in EMDR - like it is for any trauma therapy. Because EMDR may bring up old traumatic memories and feelings, you and your therapist should make sure that you’re in the right frame of mind to do go through this process.
For example, if you’re actively using drugs, if you are living in an unstable environment, or if the trauma is acute and ongoing, that might not be the best time to begin EMDR treatment. Your therapist should work with you to figure out the best timing to start EMDR. In general, though, the evidence clearly indicates that EMDR therapy is not harmful.
What to Expect in an EMDR Session
Trying any new therapy intervention can be a scary experience. You’re not sure what to expect, or how you’ll feel during and after the session. That’s why it’s important to be aware of what to expect as you move through EMDR therapy, so that you can feel as comfortable and prepared as possible.
How Do I Prepare for an EMDR Session?
As previously mentioned, it’s important that you’re able to take care of yourself while you’re receiving EMDR; otherwise, the treatments might feel overwhelming.
Your therapist will help you by teaching you coping skills to manage any intense feelings that might come up. You can also make sure that you’re taking care of yourself the best you can. Getting regular exercise, eating nutritious meals, reaching out to your support network, and starting some sort of regular relaxation practice (such as mindfulness meditation) are all great ways to make sure you’re on top of your self-care before you start the EMDR process.
What Happens in an EMDR Session?
The first session9 (or more) with an EMDR therapist will be spent just making sure that you feel emotionally safe enough to go through the process of reliving your traumatic memories. Your therapist will build rapport with you and teach you coping skills so that you’re able to manage any distressing feelings that come up. Your therapist will also work to get to know you and your background, especially your experience with traumatic events.
Then, you and your therapist will identify together what event you’ll work through first. Your therapist will ask about different aspects of the trauma and how it affects your life today, including negative beliefs that stemmed from the event as well as a positive, self-affirming thought that you’d like to believe. Your therapist might also ask you to identify any bodily sensations that are associated with the event for you.
When you’re ready, your therapist will start incorporating eye movements into your sessions. While you tell them about a traumatic memory, the therapist will use either their fingers or an object to guide your gaze rhythmically from side to side. Some therapists use other types of equipment, like headphones with bilateral sounds or electric tappers.
You will let your mind wander and make all of the connections it needs to make. There is no “right” answer in EMDR. Your therapist will guide you in this process, and stay with you every step of the way.
Will EMDR Therapy Work For Me?
No one can tell you whether or not EMDR will work for your specific situation. However, if you’ve tried more traditional psychotherapy methods and have still found yourself stuck, unable to recover from a traumatic experience, then it might be time to give EMDR a try.
At All Points North Lodge, our therapists are trained in using EMDR to help you recover from the painful symptoms of a substance use disorder, PTSD, depression, and anxiety. Together, you and your therapist can talk about whether EMDR might be the best choice in treatment for you.