Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy (EMDR)

EMDR is commonly used to treat post-traumatic stress disorder, but it has also been found to be beneficial for treating conditions like depression and anxiety.

When a person seeks treatment for a mental health condition, there are multiple options available. Some people may choose to take medication to cope with symptoms, while others seek out therapy from a licensed mental health professional, such as a psychologist or clinical social worker. 

When people think of therapy treatment, they may imagine patients sitting on a couch and describing their feelings through “talk therapy.” However, this is just one common form of therapy, and there are many other methods that can be helpful for treating mental health concerns. One specific therapy option that may be beneficial is eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR).

Table of Contents

What Is EMDR Therapy?

EMDR is a treatment approach that is based on the belief that mental health problems are the result of dysfunctionally stored memories. For instance, when a person experiences a traumatic or otherwise upsetting event, mental health problems arise when they do not properly process the event. As a result, all of the negative emotions and physical sensations associated with the event remain stored in the brain’s memories. These negative feelings can be triggered when a person encounters some sort of reminder of the event. 

In EMDR sessions, therapists follow a standardized procedure that allows patients to access dysfunctionally stored memories in the brain. A therapist will utilize bilateral stimulation techniques, such as left-right eye movements, while a person recalls a traumatic memory. The combination of accessing the traumatic memory and undergoing bilateral stimulation is thought to reduce the intense negative emotions associated with the memory. 

What Is EMDR Therapy Used For?

EMDR was originally developed for the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and it is still used to treat this condition. By changing the way that a traumatic memory is stored in the brain, EMDR can treat PTSD symptoms. 

While EMDR is most commonly used to treat PTSD, it also has healing effects on the brain. As a result, it can be used to treat other mental health conditions and the stress associated with various life challenges. EMDR may be utilized to treat: 

How Does EMDR Work?

EMDR works by helping the brain process unpleasant memories and emotions. When a person does not adequately process a traumatic experience, the stress from the event remains in the body and leads to disturbing thoughts and feelings. A person who has not recovered from trauma will also feel as if they are reliving the experience. 

In EMDR therapy, traumatic experiences are reprocessed so a person can begin to heal. This does not mean that they no longer remember what happened; it simply means they are able to hold onto the memory without the body’s “fight or flight” stress response being activated every time they are reminded of it. 

8 Phases of EMDR

EMDR occurs in eight stages throughout the course of therapy:

  • History and treatment planning: During this initial phase, the therapist gathers information about a client’s history of trauma. They then develop a treatment plan based on unprocessed memories that need to be addressed. 
  • Preparation: The therapist develops a strong working relationship with the client by explaining how EMDR works and answering questions the client may have. They also help the client develop coping strategies for managing any distress that may arise from recalling the traumatic memory.
  • Assessment: The purpose of this phase is to choose a traumatic event to reprocess and assess the images, beliefs, emotions and bodily sensations attached to the event. The client and therapist evaluate the client’s baseline distress levels at this time.
  • Desensitization: The traumatic memory is reprocessed using eye movements or another bilateral stimulation technique, such as tapping, while the client recalls the event. The goal is to reduce the client’s distress until it is gone. 
  • Installation: The client and therapist work together to reinforce a positive belief that the client now associates with the event.
  • Body scan: The client thinks about the event and the new positive belief while simultaneously scanning the body for signs of distress. Any remaining distress is reprocessed.
  • Closure: During this stage, the client returns to a calm state in the present moment. This is done after each session of reprocessing. Reprocessing will continue until the client feels neutral about the traumatic event.
  • Reevaluation: After each session of reprocessing, the client and therapist discuss the recently reprocessed memory to ensure that stress is low and that the client still feels strongly about the new positive belief.

EMDR Therapy: What To Expect

Knowing what to expect with EMDR therapy can make the process of reaching out for help seem less stressful. When you schedule an appointment with an EMDR therapist, they will take time to get to know you and your history. They will gather information about what experience has brought you to therapy, and they will ensure that you have your questions answered and are comfortable with the process. 

Once you have developed a treatment plan, you will work alongside your therapist to reprocess your distressing memory and overcome the negative emotions that surround it. You can expect to meet with your therapist once or twice per week for six to 12 total sessions, but some people may reach their treatment goals in fewer sessions. 

What To Expect After EMDR

After an EMDR session, you may experience symptoms such as tiredness, lightheadedness, new memories of the event, vivid dreams and intense emotions. This is because your brain has just reprocessed a significant event in a way that it has never been processed previously. The symptoms you experience after an EMDR session may seem upsetting, but they are normal.

Over the long term, you are likely to find that EMDR improves your overall psychological well-being. One study found that a session of EMDR reduces physiological arousal because it lowers heart rate and skin conductance levels, which are both linked to stress. You may have some intense emotions or feelings of tiredness after EMDR, but the reality is that the benefits tend to outweigh the negative effects.

EMDR Therapy Side Effects

You may temporarily experience side effects after an EMDR session, including:

  • Tiredness
  • Intense emotions
  • Memories of the traumatic event
  • Vivid dreams

Your therapist will work with you at the end of each EMDR session to help you develop a plan for coping with side effects after treatment.

EMDR Success Rate

Numerous studies have analyzed the effectiveness of EMDR for treating PTSD and other mental health conditions, and the findings have been promising. Research on EMDR has shown that it is 64% more effective than no treatment for alleviating PTSD symptoms and improving symptoms of depression. This means patients who participate in EMDR therapy are significantly more likely to show improvement when compared to people who do not seek treatment.

Although EMDR was developed for the treatment of PTSD, it has shown a relatively high success rate with other mental health disorders, including depression. A review of multiple studies found that about one-third of people with depression experience significant improvement with EMDR. Research on people with anxiety disorders has also found that EMDR significantly reduces symptoms of anxiety, panic and phobia. 

FAQs about EMDR

Can you do EMDR on yourself?

EMDR should not be performed as a do-it-yourself intervention, as it is a mental health treatment tool that requires specific training and knowledge. Only a mental health professional with proper licensure and training should perform EMDR. 

Is EMDR hypnosis?

EMDR is different from hypnosis, as EMDR does not result in an altered state of consciousness like hypnosis does. Research on people undergoing EMDR has shown that brain activity during EMDR is no different from what is seen during the normal waking state. 

Can EMDR make things worse?

Just as with any treatment approach, EMDR will not work for everyone. Some people may find they do not benefit from EMDR, or their symptoms worsen after completing EMDR treatment. When performed by a qualified mental health professional, EMDR has been found to be safe and effective, and there is a large body of research showing that it is beneficial. If the side effects of EMDR outweigh the benefits to you, talk with your treatment provider about another option that may be a better fit. 

Why is EMDR controversial?

There has been some controversy surrounding whether EMDR is actually effective. Some are concerned because EMDR differs from most therapy approaches, such as those where patients talk with a therapist to change uncomfortable emotions or thoughts. However, much of the controversy with EMDR has involved doubts about whether bilateral stimulation actually benefits patients who undergo EMDR. Based on the currently available research, there is evidence that successful EMDR treatment does result in physiological changes. However, scientists need to conduct additional studies to determine what is happening inside the brain to cause the changes seen with EMDR.

Get The Help You Need in New Jersey

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Medical Disclaimer: The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.