EMDR therapy is an eight-phase treatment protocol designed to help people heal from extremely stressful or traumatic experiences. These experiences exist along spectrums of intensity, frequency, and longevity. Our brains are remarkably resilient and adaptive; however, when experiences push the brain beyond its natural resiliency, it adapts by moving us into “survival mode” to get us through. Amazingly, we survive these awful experiences, but we often develop problematic, psychological symptoms or harmful coping strategies as a result. EMDR therapy targets these “unprocessed” parts of the traumatic memory and reprocesses them until the problem is resolved and no longer causing significant distress.
What kind of problems does EMDR therapy treat?
Scientific research has established EMDR therapy as effective in the treatment of post-traumatic stress. Additionally, clinicians also have reported success using EMDR in the treatment of the following conditions:
- Panic attacks
- Complicated grief
- Dissociative disorders
- Disturbing memories
- Pain disorders
- Performance anxiety
- Stress reduction
- Sexual, Physical, and/or Psychological abuse
- Body dysmorphic disorders
- Personality Disorders
How does EMDR work?
In full transparency, no one knows how any form of psychotherapy works neurobiologically or in the brain. However, we do know that when a person is very upset, their brain cannot process information as it does ordinarily. Adverse experiences can become “frozen in time” and remembering a trauma may feel as bad as going through it the first time because the images, sounds, smells, and feelings haven’t changed. Such memories have a lasting, negative effect that interferes with the way a person sees the world and the way they relate to other people.
EMDR research suggests that the therapy has a direct effect on the way the brain processes information. Normal information processing is resumed, so following a successful EMDR session, a person no longer relives the images, sounds, and feelings when the event is brought to mind. You still remember what happened, but it is less upsetting or disturbing. EMDR therapy appears to be similar to what occurs naturally during dreaming or REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. Therefore, EMDR can be thought of as a physiologically-based therapy that helps a person see disturbing material in a new and less distressing way.
What does EMDR therapy look like?
EMDR therapy looks different than most traditional talk-oriented therapies. Instead of focusing on behaviors and thoughts and relying on verbal-processing to “make sense” of the problem, EMDR therapy accesses more primitive parts of the brain where unprocessed memory is stored and enacts them in the here-and-now. Using eye-movements and other EMDR techniques, the experience is processed through the mind and the body.
Demonstration of EMDR Protocol using eye movements. An important note is that this is not an example of how every session happens for every person, but an example of how EMDR therapy worked for this particular therapist and client.
What does research say?
To see a list of existing research, please visit the following:
Note: Information on this page is adapted from www.emdria.org.