How Does EMDR Therapy Work?
EMDR therapy targets the way that traumatic memories are stored in the brain. It is believed that past traumatic experiences can keep causing stress and anxiety because they were not processed. When these memories are triggered after the traumatic event, they can still have all the same emotions, thoughts, and physical sensations as the initial traumatic experience.
While there is evidence that EMDR therapy works, the science is not quite clear on how it works. Some studies question if the side to side eye movements are necessary for the procedure to work. They suggest that the real benefit comes from recalling and working through the traumatic memories with a skilled therapist.
However, new research is emerging. Research on the visual system may show that the lateral movement of the eyes is required for EMDR effectiveness. The movement mimics optic flow. This movement calms down the fight-or-flight response. Thus, greatly lowering the feeling of stress that a traumatic memory can hold.
PTSD is a type of anxiety disorder that occurs in response to traumatic experiences. About one-half of American adults will experience a traumatic event in their lives, according to the National Institutes of Mental Health (NIMH). PTSD can cause recurring feelings of anxiety and negative emotions.
EMDR therapy can be effective in helping to calm symptoms of PTSD and trauma. The therapy has been shown to be beneficial and has long-lasting results for people who have experienced traumatic events.
EMDR therapy may work best when coupled with therapy. This will really allow a person to no longer feel the negative intense emotions associated with past trauma. As a result, with the help of a therapist, these individuals can work through the painful event without feeling the pain.
Phase 1: History and Treatment Planning
The first stage is history and treatment planning. During this phase, a therapist will assess how ready a client is for treatment. Together a client and therapist will work to identify traumatic areas from the past four EMDR processing. Traumatic events from the present that cause emotional distress can also benefit from EMDR therapy.
Phase 2: Preparation
During the preparation phase, a therapist works on building a client’s trust. Due to the traumatic nature of an intense emotional experience, an individual needs to be able to trust their therapist fully.
The client will need to feel safe and cared for during the treatment experience. During this phase, a therapist will explain the EMDR process and full detail. Clients also receive tools to help them stay emotionally stable during the session.
Phase 3–6: Assessment, Desensitization, Installation, and Body Scan
During these phases is when the actual work begins. Clients will be asked to:
- Recall a visual related to the memory
- Identify a negative belief about themselves
- Acknowledge related emotions and physical (body) sensations
- Identify a positive belief about themselves
- Rate both the positive and negative associations related to the event
The therapist will then begin using a technique called bilateral stimulation. This involves directed eye movement, taps, or tones.
Phase 7: Closure
During phase seven, the client will put what they have learned during the EMDR therapy into use. A therapist may ask a client to keep a log for a week to track any issues or negative emotions that may come up. The log serves as a reminder of the techniques learned during phase two of treatment.
Phase 8: Reevaluation
The reevaluation phase is not always the last phase in EMDR treatment. If a person has had several traumatic experiences, then at this stage they will work with their therapist to identify a new starting point.
Next, they will begin the process again with this new starting point. However, if a person has addressed all the targets they identified in the first phase, they will enter into a maintenance phase. In the maintenance phase, they will be able to use the skills they learned.