Reviewing EMDR

Reviewing EMDREye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a form of psychotherapy practiced by a professional therapist to help people overcome the emotional distress associated with trauma. In most cases, EMDR is used for people who suffer from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but it can also address the issues that underpin other anxiety problems.

People who experience any sort of trauma often develop emotional hardships that cause anxiety, fear, stress and depression. These emotional disorders continue to debilitate people when an experience triggers a memory of the past: because someone has not yet processed the trauma, she can become locked up when memories recur. The National Registry of Evidence-based Programs and Practices, which was developed by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, explains that EMDR is designed to treat people with trauma-related emotional disorders, such as depression or anxiety. In short, it improves overall mental health and wellbeing by helping people move past trauma. However, before treatment can begin, an EMDR therapist will meet with a potential patient to review her history and determine if she is ready for therapy1.

The EMDR Institute explains that the mind can heal from emotional wounds much like the body heals from physical ones. The body naturally works to heal itself when it is wounded by a cut or scrape, but, if the injury is continuously repeated or a foreign object gets stuck in the wound, then the wound will only fester. In the same way EMDR removes foreign objects (traumatic pain) from the brain to ensure that it heals. Unfortunately, if the processing center of the brain continues to be blocked by trauma, then the wound will continue to fester and cause even more pain2.

The EMDR Institute states that multiple studies show EMDR to be effective: between 84% and 90% of patients who suffer from a single-trauma incident are no longer diagnosed with PTSD after only three treatment sessions. Other studies show that 77% of people with multiple traumas no longer have this disorder after six sessions, and 77% of combat veterans no longer have it after 12 sessions. Also, the American Psychiatric Association, the World Health Organization and the Department of Defense all recognize EMDR as an effective form of treatment for trauma.

EMDR therapy works in 8 phases that involve focusing on the patient’s past, present and future. Therapy process the past experiences as well as current issues that contribute to distress. Once the issues are resolved, the patient learns the skills and attitudes to create a better future. The first phase of EMDR is a history of the patient, which includes identifying the issues from the past and any current situations that cause distress. Going as far back as early childhood is necessary to determine if the patient has unresolved issues that contribute to current distress.

Phase two of EMDR treatment consists of equipping patients with multiple ways to handle emotional distress, such as imagery and other stress-reducing techniques. The therapist may test different coping techniques to see which ones works for each particular patient. The next three phases of EMDR consist of identifying and processing the target. The therapist will focus on the particular incident that causes emotional distress while asking the patient to think about an image related to his pain. The patient must also must choose one negative and positive thought he has about himself, along with the emotions and bodily sensation he has related to those thoughts. As a patient focuses on his image, beliefs and the resulting body sensations, the therapist utilizes different forms of external stimulation, such as eye movement: the therapist will direct the patient’s eyes with her finger. This process occurs for some time, but afterwards the patient will let his mind go blank to notice any random thought, feeling or image that comes to mind. This process is continually repeated until the patient reports no distress.

Phases seven and eight consist of closure and instructing the patient to keep a daily log of emotions and sensations related to the traumatic incidents; in doing so, she can remind herself to utilize the coping techniques she learned in therapy for these new problems. The final phase will determine the progress she made to ensure that all distressing incidents have been resolved. Such work also ensures that the patient is ready to respond to any future events in healthy ways.

The length of treatment depends upon the number of traumatic incidents in the patient’s life and the age he developed PTSD. Most patients with a single traumatic event can overcome their problems treated in fewer than five hours of therapy. Patients who experienced multiple traumatic events (such as combat veterans) typically need longer treatment periods, but seek help to address your needs and to find the therapeutic methods that will work best for you.

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1 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, “Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing,” National Registry of Evidence-based Programs and Practices, http://www.nrepp.samhsa.gov/01_landing.aspx, (Updated January 28, 2014).

2 “What is EMDR?” EMDR Institute, INC., http://www.emdr.com/what-is-emdr/, Cited November 15, 2015).