EMDR: Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing
What Is EMDR?
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a psychotherapy treatment originally designed to alleviate the distress associated with traumatic memories.
This therapy is based on the understanding that our life experiences have a huge role in what causes our current mental health symptoms. Our brains are always processing and storing information, but when something distressing happens to us, our brains can have difficulty processing the overload of emotions. This can cause the memory of this distressing (or traumatic) experience to get stored ineffectively or stuck, in our brain with all of the thoughts, feelings, and sensations of that experience not fully processed. Therefore, when something in our day-to-day life triggers any of those same thoughts, feelings, or sensations, our bodies feel all of those distressing emotions again. EMDR therapy desensitizes and reprocesses these ineffectively stored memories using the same techniques our brains already use when we sleep each night (During REM sleep, our eyes move back and forth naturally to process and “download” our experiences from that day - that’s why we can wake up the next day with a fresh mindset). After EMDR therapy successfully releases the negative feelings from a “stuck” distressing memory, the brain will have reprocessed that event and replaced your understanding of the memory with positive beliefs about yourself and the world.
*For example, before EMDR, someone might often think, “It’s my fault” and “I’m not good enough.” EMDR therapy helps replace this negative belief with a positive belief that now actually feels true and believable, such as, “I can and have learned from my mistakes, and I am good enough.” - The positive belief now can feel believable because the distressing memory, or memories, feeding this negative belief have been reprocessed with EMDR.
Who can benefit from EMDR therapy?
Anyone can participate in EMDR therapy, being that we all have had negative experiences that may still be affecting us today (these experiences could even be something like getting laughed at in grade school, the death of a childhood pet, being picked last for a game at recess, etc.) If there are negative thoughts about yourself or the world that often color how you experience your day, there are probably negative experiences that your brain hasn’t fully processed and dealt with, and EMDR therapy can help.
Specifically, individuals suffering from PTSD, mood disorders such as anxiety and depression, substance abuse issues, or other trauma can greatly benefit from EMDR treatment. Individuals that have encountered distressing life experiences such as sexual abuse or rape, combat trauma, childhood trauma, or other life-threatening situations would also be appropriate candidates for EMDR therapy. EMDR particularly benefits those whose mental health goals focus on moving past a traumatic experience. Children, adolescents, teenagers, and adults can benefit from EMDR.
Source: EMDR International Association
How effective is EMDR therapy?
Studies have shown positive outcomes for the effectiveness of EMDR, with an 84-90% success rate for single event trauma victims who no longer had PTSD symptoms after three 90-minute EMDR sessions. Treatment effectiveness can be maintained being that the brain doesn’t un-do the processing of a memory after it has been processed with EMDR.
What will I experience during EMDR treatment & what does a session typically look like?
The most important part of the EMDR process is the prep work your therapist will do with you before you get to the phase of treatment that processes memories. This is to help prepare you to feel confident in being able to handle the intense emotions that can come up during and after treatment.
How many sessions of EMDR therapy will I need?
This is the most commonly asked question about EMDR, yet it is so difficult to answer. EMDR can be a brief, focused treatment, or a part of a longer treatment plan. The number of sessions depends on so many factors, including: the client’s desires in therapy, the nature of the trauma, the amount and duration of trauma, whether the client might have resources or a support system to bolster healing, the client’s degree of personal readiness to engage in therapy, and the brain and body’s natural healing process.
EMDR is no different from any other form of therapy in the sense that the client decides how long they would like to engage in therapy. Treatment goals and any thoughts about length of treatment can be discussed directly with a therapist.
Are there any negative outcomes of EMDR?
As with any form of psychotherapy, there may be increased risk of temporary distress. When engaging in EMDR, distressing thoughts and memories, high levels of emotions, and physical sensations may emerge. After EMDR sessions, processing of traumatic memories and feelings may continue. This is why your therapist will do prep work with you before you get to the phase of treatment that processes memories. This is to prepare for these negative outcomes and build your confidence about your ability to cope with the distressing material that comes up during treatment.
Additional resources can be found at:
Our EMDR Practitioners
Anxiety & Depression
Anxiety / OCD
Attachment Trauma / PTSD