Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) has been used since the 1980s. However, it wasn’t until recently that EMDR became more popular amongst the general population.
Largely, this is because of major celebrities—such as Ashley Judd, Prince Harry, and Sandra Bullock—talking about how this therapeutic technique has helped them process trauma. And unlike some other popular therapeutic techniques discussed by celebrities and gurus alike, EMDR has some significant evidence to back it up.
So, let’s explore the world of EMDR further. What is it exactly? How does it work? And should you consider it?
What is EMDR Therapy?
EMDR was developed entirely by accident. Dr. Francine Shapiro was walking through a park, thinking about an unpleasant memory. However, she suddenly discovered that by quickly darting her eyes back and forth, she felt better, and she wondered if this would work for others, too.
As any scientist would, Dr. Shapiro soon began testing EMDR on other individuals. Participants were instructed to think of a traumatic memory as they moved their eyes from side to side. Many of these participants agreed that they felt calmer and less distressed about the traumatic memory when using EMDR.
Initial uses primarily involved post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) patients. While it didn’t eliminate PTSD entirely, it did significantly lower anxiety and distress for individuals diagnosed with this disorder.
In many ways, EMDR can be compared to unclogging a blocked pipe. Dr. Shapiro thought that many people, after facing trauma, ended up with “stuck” memories, emotions, or physical sensations. Yet, bilateral movement of the eyes unclogged these “blockages,” paving the way toward healing and allowing a person to confront these memories without being re-traumatized.
Since its discovery, EMDR has been rigorously explored in various research studies, repeatedly proving its effectiveness. For instance, a scientific review of 24 studies concluded that “EMDR therapy provides physicians and other clinicians with an efficient approach to address psychological and physiologic symptoms stemming from adverse life experiences.”
Today, EMDR is used for a variety of mental health issues, including PTSD, depression, anxiety, and more, and is credited for helping various people process trauma across the world.
Is EMDR Therapy the Same As Hypnosis?
Popularly confused with hypnosis, EMDR is not the same as hypnosis, nor is it a form of hypnosis/hypnotherapy. Hypnosis involves placing a person in a state of high suggestibility. EMDR does not do this but uses rapid eye movements to help process trauma.
How Does It Help Release Trauma?
EMDR helps “re-process” trauma. Before EMDR, many individuals report becoming triggered because of their traumatic memory. However, after EMDR, individuals can process and heal from this trauma without being re-triggered.
EMDR may help re-process these memories by continuously re-activating and replaying the memory while performing a technique that is calming. This can help this memory become “unstuck,” where the memory no longer disrupts a person’s daily life or psychological well-being.
It’s further been hypothesized that EMDR may mimic similar processes that occur during REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. This can help calm the fear center of the brain and help the brain process and synchronize.
What Are the Stages of EMDR Therapy?
EMDR therapy consists of eight stages. These include:
History taking and treatment planning: This phase typically involves a discussion between the client and therapist. Your therapist may ask you why you chose EMDR and discuss or ask questions regarding your history. From there, a treatment plan is developed according to your unique needs.
Preparation: This is where the client is educated about EMDR and how it works. Your therapist will also set expectations. Any client questions are addressed during this stage. These first two phases are a collaboration between the client and therapist. Movement into the third stage is only done when the client is comfortable.
Assessment: The traumatic event to reprocess is identified during this phase, along with associated feelings, beliefs, images, or sensations that arise with it.
Desensitization: This is where rapid eye movements are used while thinking about the traumatic events. It’s normal for new sensations and thoughts to emerge during this time.
Installation: Following desensitization, the client focuses on attaching positive thoughts or beliefs to the event until it feels true.
Body scan: This phase checks to see if any lingering disturbances remain. Your therapist will ask you to scan your body as you think of the traumatic event and the positive association previously agreed on. If any uncomfortable sensations arise, future desensitization sessions may be necessary.
Closure: This takes place at the end of every reprocessing phase. It’s used to help you return to a state of calm and to assess whether EMDR was effective or if future sessions are needed.
Re-evaluation: After reprocessing, each new session begins with a re-evaluation. You will discuss the traumatic event with your therapist to determine if the disturbance is still low and how to proceed with treatment.
Where is EMDR Most Helpful?
From the initial use of EMDR to now, this therapeutic method is most helpful when helping patients with PTSD. However, it’s also effective for anxiety, phobias, panic disorders, and more.
What Does EMDR Feel Like?
Post-EMDR, many people report being able to talk about the traumatic event in their daily lives without being re-triggered. Often, it takes people a few sessions to notice these effects. It also may be beneficial to combine EMDR with other approaches for optimal effectiveness.
Who Should Avoid EMDR?
EMDR usually requires that the individual can tolerate certain levels of anxiety and stress. This usually means having some sense of security in one’s life. For those with unstable or insecure situations, such as an abusive household, substance issues, or housing insecurities, EMDR might not be ideal right now.
It’s also not suitable for any individuals who experience hallucinations or delusions. This often means those with bipolar disorder, personality disorders, or related conditions should not take part in EMDR.
If you’re ready to discover the power of EMDR, reach out to our team at Bhatia Psychology Group. Together, we can help you process and heal from trauma, guiding you toward your best life.