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Feb 13, 2023

EMDR Therapy: What It Is And Why It Works


Eye movement desensitization reprocessing therapy (EMDR) is acknowledged by the American Psychiatric Association as a helpful therapeutic technique to treat a number of mental health conditions is including post traumatic stress disorder (PSTD) and acute stress disorder. 

This therapeutic technique can assist the movement of traumatic memories into a space of healthy memory that does not trigger physical symptoms of fight, flight, or freeze. Understanding more about EMDR will help you to determine whether it is a technique that could work for you.

What Is EMDR Therapy?

EMDR is conducted by a trained therapist who uses the structured approach to focus on a target memory of a past trauma or adverse life experience. This traumatic memory is worked with in a safe space with the therapist.

The therapist uses bilateral stimulation, usually with rapid eye movements, but this can be with bilateral movement or sound. The bilateral stimulation is present whilst you share the distressing memories, focusing not only on the event but on the thoughts, feelings, and body sensations that you experienced.

A therapist usually asks you to follow their finger movements with your eyes as you are speaking. They keep up a rhythmic movement to create the stimulation required for EMDR therapy.

After this you will instill a positive belief related to the memory to replace the negative belief that has been held. This will help you to process the memory so that it no longer has psychological and physical symptoms of distress attached to it.

A typical EMDR session will involve eight phases:

  • History and Information gathering: this phase is where the therapist will gather a background on you and help determine the trajectory of your therapy. They will explore the type of trauma you have been exposed to. This will assist in deciding on which memories to use and which memories need to be reprocessed to assist you in your healing journey.
  • Preparation and education: this phase will include an explanation of what will happen during the session as well as tools for keeping yourself feeling safe and grounded. These tools are valuable and can be used outside of the session as well. The coping strategies that these tools will help you embody can form the foundation of your homework and daily practices. These tools can be used after all sessions have been completed.
  • Assessment: this phase allows you to work with the therapist to explore which distressing memories and traumatic incidences you may wish to reprocess. You will also discuss the negative beliefs related to the traumas and positive beliefs that you wish to carry forward instead. It will be important to develop strong positive beliefs of you moving forward to secure the lasting effect of the therapy.
  • Desensitization and reprocessing: this phase is where the therapist will use the bilateral stimulation to take you through the experience helping you become aware of thoughts and sensations that you have linked to the memory. This is the phase where the reprocessing will begin. The traditional stimulation would be following the therapist’s fingers. These stimulations have grown to include using sounds or tones on either side of your head or tapping on either hand or thigh. The method used will be up to you and the therapist, you need to feel comfortable for the therapy to be effective.
  • Installation: in this phase you will install the positive belief to assist with the reprocessing. This positive belief will replace the negative belief that has been associated with the memory or event, such as ‘I am to blame’, with a more positive, helpful believe such as, ‘I survived and am strong’. The positive belief allows for growth after the trauma and building of resilience.
  • Body scan: the body scan allows you to indicate how activated you feel when working with the traumatic memory. When you feel no activation, your reprocessing is complete. This will mean that you have successfully reprocessed the memory and it should not continue to cause distress. You can learn to do a body scan wherever you are to gauge if you have been triggered by something that engages the traumatic memory. 
  • Closure and stabilization: this phase is important because it allows you to feel contained after the previous phases. You should not leave the therapy space until you feel stable and contained. This is also the time for the therapist to share some tools that you can use between therapy sessions. These tools might be a recap on tools learned in phase two, or from previous sessions. If you have any questions now is a good time to ask. 
  • Reevaluation and continuing of care: the last phase looks at viewing your progress and looking at what the plan forward will be. This will help determine how many more sessions you will need and what traumatic memory you will be focusing on next.

These sessions will continue until you and your therapist feel that you have reprocessed the memories that you need to and are no longer stuck in a state of survival and hyperarousal.

Understanding Trauma

When viewing EMDR as a therapy for trauma related disorders and experiences we need to have a basic understanding of the types of trauma that can be experienced.

Trauma, by definition of the American Psychiatric Association, is any event directly or indirectly experienced that threatens your feeling of safety relating to grievous injury or death. Anything that is experienced in this way can create a traumatic memory.

Acute Trauma

Acute trauma is when there is a single traumatic event. This event may be an assault, accident, natural disaster, etc. This suggests that there will be one event that needs to be addressed in therapy. Acute trauma can result in acute stress disorder or PTSD if it is not processed correctly.

Chronic Trauma

Chronic trauma is when there is multiple or long term traumatic events. These events may be domestic violence, continued abuse, war, poverty, etc. These events compound each other and there will be multiple events that will need to be worked on in therapy. This will extend the span of therapy as you will reprocess one event at a time.

Complex Trauma

Complex trauma is when there are multiple and varied traumatic events that have occurred over a long period of time. This often includes domestic violence, childhood neglect and abuse, etc. Therapy will need to address each of these events to allow for a full reprocessing to be done. Your therapist may decide to work from the oldest remembered trauma to the present.

Who Is EMDR Therapy For?

EMDR can work for anyone. Some therapists specialize in working with children, others with teenagers and adults. 

Many people feel that the use of EMDR is less intrusive than talk therapy when dealing with trauma and prefer to try this method. The World Health Organization has given EMDR therapy the green light for all individuals, specifically those dealing with trauma related difficulties, or PTSD.

How EMDR Therapy Works

EMDR therapy works with an understanding of how the brain processes information and what happens when it is faced with a traumatic memory.

In the brain, memory processing involves three key areas: 

  • The amygdala: which adds emotional content and response to the memory.
  • The hippocampus: which processes and ‘files’ the memory in long term memory without active emotional reaction.
  • The prefrontal cortex: which understands the content and can tell that the memory is a representation of a passed event and not part of the present. 

When a traumatic memory is encoded there seems to be a flood from the amygdala which interrupts the processing and shuts down the prefrontal cortex’s ability to differentiate between past and present. This often means that you can be convinced that the experience is happening in the present moment and feel the psychological and physical symptoms of the event each time you think of the memory or are reminded of it.

EMDR therapy aims to use bilateral stimulation to overcome this phenomenon and allow for the memory to be correctly stored and interpreted as a past experience. Once this has been achieved the physical symptoms that are experienced should lessen and finally no longer present a problem. This indicates that the memory is fully reprocessed and is seen as a past memory that can be thought of without having a physical and emotional reaction.

What Does EMDR Therapy Treat?

EMDR is primarily used to treat PTSD, acute stress disorder, and any other difficulties due to traumatic incident exposure.

There are therapists that use this technique further to dig into the roots and assist in alleviating symptoms of anxiety, depression, substance abuse, eating disorders, and personality disorders.

If you feel that EMDR might work for what you are experiencing it could be worth visiting an EMDR trained therapist to talk about the possibility of using this technique. 

Why EMDR Therapy Works?

EMDR therapy works within the framework of adaptive information processing and supports the biological system that is affected by the traumatic memory. Traumatic experiences can be likened to an injury on the brain. This is why the brain struggles to process the memory.

Often people fear talking about the traumatic memory as they feel it simply re-traumatizes the individual. EMDR therapy offers an alternative to simply speaking about the event. EMDR therapy brings the awareness to thoughts and physical sensations related to the event as well. This frames the memory within a more objective lens. This combined with bilateral stimulation is seen as a less invasive method to assist with the reprocessing of trauma.

Other than being less stressful to the client, EMDR therapy involves less homework than other approaches. Large amounts of homework can leave a person feeling overwhelmed or guilty if they do not get to it. EMDR therapy will only have homework related to the tools provided in the therapy session to guide the client to the next session.

EMDR therapy has been seen to work more rapidly than other approaches, allowing the client to reprocess and regain a high quality of life within a short period of time. It has been noted that single exposure trauma may take as little as five sessions to treat. The more complex or compound the trauma is, the longer the treatment span will be. This is due to the need to address one traumatic memory at a time.

To Wrap Up

All traumatic experiences can have serious repercussions and affects on an individual and their ability to function at home, in social relationships, and at work. This can limit the quality of life that they might enjoy. 

Reaching out for assistance is a helpful manner to take back the quality of life you would like and to reprocess your traumatic experiences. If you need this assistance, or wish to find out more about it, contact us at One Life Counselling and Coaching.

If you have experienced a trauma, remember that you do not have to heal from it alone. You can reach out and create a support system. You are also not to blame for the trauma that has happened. It is sad that this has happened to you, and it is alright to acknowledge the fact that it is scary and painful. There are ways for you to heal from this trauma and move forward in your life to continue to achieve and succeed.

I am the founder of One Life Counselling and Coaching LTD and I am honored to lead a team of professional psychologists, psychotherapist’s and life coaches who dedicate their professional lives to helping people to elevate their mindsets, evolve their beliefs and learn to thrive in the present moment.
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