Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy (EMDR) is one of the most talked-about treatments used in recovery from traumatic or distressing events. In fact, it is one of the leading therapies used in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It is even becoming more utilized in treating anxiety, depression, OCD, and many others! Having been on both the receiving and practicing side of EMDR therapy, I can confidently stand behind its effectiveness and versatility. I’ve personally introduced EMDR therapy to children and adults with varying histories, experiences, and difficulties and have witnessed phenomenal outcomes!

What EMDR is NOT

It may be easier to begin this topic by explaining what EMDR is not and, in doing so, busting some common myths.

First, EMDR is not hypnosis. There have been concerns voiced in the past that EMDR induces a “hypnotic” effect on the participant, and this is just simply not true. A client engaging in EMDR therapy is conscious, aware, and participatory throughout the entire process. In fact, inducing a heavily dissociative effect is the opposite of the therapy’s intent.

Second, EMDR is not traditional exposure therapy. I’ll preface this section by saying that every clinician is very different in their approach using EMDR and every experience is personal and unique. To compound that, every client engages in EMDR differently. For some, talking about the trauma is easy, and for others, it’s impossible. Either option is ok when using EMDR! Exposure therapy instructs the client to revisit the trauma through repeated writing, imagery, and discussion exercises. EMDR can be conducted without the majority of the details and still be just as effective in processing the trauma.

For more frequently asked questions and further investigation of concerns, you can visit the EMDR Institute’s website here.

EMDR is Evidence-Based

EMDR is an evidence-based therapy proven effective through multiple studies, research, and publications. Not only has it been proven through extensive research, but it is also heavily endorsed by the Department of Veteran’s Affairs and Department of Defense (DoD) as a premier treatment used for PTSD and recovery from trauma-related symptoms.

EMDR has been compared to many other common treatments used for improving symptoms of PTSD, such as prolonged exposure therapy, trauma-focused cognitive-behavioral therapy, and narrative therapy. These studies have highlighted that EMDR is just as effective or even better at improving symptoms associated with trauma for some participants. Additionally, studies of the brain using scans and MRIs have shown significant differences between functioning before EMDR treatment and after. The science is behind EMDR!

What Does EMDR Therapy Look Like?

EMDR consists of multiple phases that are progressed at a unique pace for each client. The first few phases concentrate on building the therapeutic relationship between clinician and client while incorporating practical coping skills, grounding exercises, and relaxation techniques. The preparation phases work toward promoting and creating a safe and constructive environment to begin further processing traumatic or distressing events. Within these beginning phases, history taking, and additional assessments may be completed to determine which events to target and to what extent to process.

After the groundwork has been established, an event or distressing emotion has been identified, and a level of safety has been achieved, processing begins. Past, present, and potential future events that fall along with the same negative belief system are identified. This plan also incorporates a positive belief system that a client wants to build and install in opposition to the negative belief pattern currently causing distress. For example, a common negative belief may be, “I’m not good enough” or “I should have done something.” We then identify a positive belief to incorporate that is the opposite of the negative such as, “I’m good enough, regardless…” or “I did the best I could with the knowledge I had at the time.”

The processing phases of EMDR utilize bilateral stimulation in the form of eye movements, sounds, or tapping. There are a variety of resources available now to incorporate bilateral stimulation so that the therapy can adjust to meet a client’s individual needs. Lightbars, headphones, and hand buzzers are some of the most popular outside of traditional eye movements. Originally, the therapist used their finger to move back and forth across a client’s line of vision to facilitate the bilateral movements. A level of distress scale (easily compared to a pain scale used at a hospital or doctor’s office) is used to track emotional distress and the subsequent decrease in emotional arousal associated with the event itself.

After processing is completed, the positive belief network is strengthened, revisiting the need to continue processing or move forward to another event or belief system.

What about in-between sessions?

If you’ve participated in therapy before, you may have heard of assigned homework or activities to do throughout the week to prepare for the next session. EMDR is not a homework-driven type of therapy. After processing, the brain continues to grow and adjust subconsciously for the next seven days, which is why I typically recommend only engaging in one processing session a week, at most.

I may ask a client to keep a journal or thought log to track any new information or thoughts as the week progresses. Some new memories may pop up, vivid dreams may occur, and new sensations can increase. However, some clients have experienced none of these, and that’s completely fine too! One of the most beautiful parts of EMDR is the flexibility it provides so that each experience is different and can be adapted to the individual client.

Why Choose EMDR?
  1. You have experienced traumatic or distressing events in your life, causing difficulties or complications in the present.
  2. Talking about the traumatic events is overwhelming and does not prove helpful.
  3. Intended goals of other therapies can be achieved using fewer sessions.
  4. EMDR provides an avenue to deeper processing, allowing the brain to naturally heal itself after removing barriers.
  5. EMDR has been proven effective through extensive studies in children, teens, and adults.

The brain wants to heal itself, much like a cut on the hand will naturally heal given time and care. However, trauma can establish barriers to that healing, leading to distress and difficulties experienced in the present. EMDR works on a neurological level to remove those barriers so the brain can work toward recovery, healing, and happiness!