How Does EMDR Work
EMDR Therapy for PTSD
What Are the Risks? – EMDR Side Effects
What is EMDR
EMDR or Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a fairly new, nontraditional type of psychotherapy. It’s growing in popularity, particularly for treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD often occurs after experiences such as military combat, physical assault, rape, or car accidents.
Francine Shapiro, Ph.D., an American psychologist, developed Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) Therapy as a breakthrough therapy with the special capacity to overcome the often devastating effects of psychological trauma in the late 1980s. An ever-growing community of therapists soon saw directly its power to transform lives.
At the same time, controlled research studies consistently demonstrated its efficacy and effectiveness. For many therapists who took up this therapy, EMDR felt like a “gift” to themselves and their clients, and they were eager to “pay it forward” by spreading the word to colleagues.
Therapist directed lateral eye movements are the most commonly used external stimulus but a variety of other stimuli including hand-tapping and audio stimulation is often used (Shapiro, 1991). Shapiro (1995, 2001) hypothesizes that EMDR therapy facilitates the accessing of the traumatic memory network, so that information processing is enhanced, with new associations forged between the traumatic memory and more adaptive memories or information. These new associations are thought to result in complete information processing, new learning, elimination of emotional distress, and development of cognitive insights.
How Does EMDR Work?
In a study, 77% of combat veterans were free of PTSD in 12 sessions. There has been so much research on EMDR therapy that it is now recognized as an effective form of treatment for trauma and other disturbing experiences by organizations such as the American Psychiatric Association, the World Health Organization and the Department of Defense.
Given the worldwide recognition as an effective treatment of trauma, you can easily see how EMDR therapy would be effective in treating the “every day” memories that are the reason people have low self-esteem, feelings of powerlessness, and all the myriad problems that bring them in for therapy. Over 100,000 clinicians throughout the world use the therapy. Millions of people have been treated successfully over the past 25 years.
EMDR therapy combines different elements to maximize treatment effects. A full description of the theory, sequence of treatment, and research on protocols and active mechanisms can be found in F. Shapiro (2001) Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR): Basic Principles, Protocols, and Procedures, 2nd Edition
There are 8 phases involved. You can read more about EMDR Principles and the phases here.
EMDR Therapy for PTSD
EMDR is a psychotherapy for PTSD. EMDR can help you process upsetting memories, thoughts, and feelings related to the trauma. By processing these experiences, you can get relief from PTSD symptoms.
After trauma, people with PTSD often have trouble making sense of what happened to them. EMDR helps you process the trauma, which can allow you to start to heal. In EMDR, you will pay attention to a back-and-forth movement or sound while you think about the upsetting memory long enough for it to become less distressing. Although EMDR is an effective treatment for PTSD, there is disagreement about it works.
Some research shows that the back and forth movement is an important part of treatment, but other research shows the opposite.
During the first stage, you will learn about physical and emotional reactions to trauma. You and your provider will discuss how ready you are to focus on your trauma memories in therapy. To prepare, you will learn some new coping skills. Next, you will identify the “target”, or the upsetting memory you want to focus on–including any negative thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations related to the memory.
You will hold the memory in your mind while also paying attention to a back-and-forth movement or sound (like your provider’s moving finger, a flashing light, or a tone that beeps in one ear at a time) until your distress goes down. This will last for about 30 seconds at a time, and then you will talk about what the exercise was like for you. Eventually, you will focus on a positive belief and feeling while you hold the memory in your mind. Towards the end of treatment, your provider will re-assess your symptoms to see if you need to process other targets.
What Are the Risks? – EMDR Side Effects
You may feel uncomfortable when focusing on trauma-related memories or beliefs. These feelings are usually brief and people tend to feel better as they keep doing EMDR.
- Most people who complete EMDR find that the benefits outweigh any initial discomfort.
- EMDR is an individual therapy. You will meet one-to-one with your provider for each session.
- In most cases, you will not be asked to talk about the details of your trauma out loud. But you will be asked to think about your trauma in session.
EMDR does not require you to complete homework or practice assignments between sessions.
About 1-3 months of weekly 50-90 minute sessions. But, many people start to notice improvement after a few sessions. And the benefits of EMDR can last long after your final session with your provider.
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