What Is EMDR Therapy And What Should You Expect?

Updated May 31, 2021

Medically Reviewed By: Aaron Horn

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing or EMDR is a rather new, unconventional type of psychotherapy. It has become more popular in the treatment of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). It involves eye movements that are similar to eye movements during REM (rapid eye movement) sleep.

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What Is EMDR?

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing is a type of therapy that helps individuals restore themselves from symptoms and distressing feelings from a distressing life occurrence. This type of therapy can have the same benefits as traditional psychotherapy but in a much shorter period. Some people living with PTSD no longer have that condition in as few as three 90-minute appointments. EMDR therapy encompasses an 8-stage treatment.

Past, Present, and Future: Attention is given to these three times in life. The focus on the past includes any unsettling occurrences or events that had happened. The focus on the present includes any unsettling occurrences or events that are currently happening. The focus on the future is coming up with skills and coping strategies to deal with unsettling occurrences.

Stage 1: History And Treatment Plan (1-2 Sessions)

Discussion with a therapist about unsettling, distressing occurrences that have happened in the past. Also, discuss the individual's willingness and comfort level in uncovering and dealing with this type of therapy. The first meetings are usually focused on childhood incidences. If the individual had a specific situation in their adult life, that is where they would begin. Individuals with one specific adult traumatic event can usually be treated in less than 5 hours. Those with multiple traumas will need more time.

Stage 2: Preparation (1-4 Sessions)

The therapist offers the individual ways to cope with and overcome their emotional anguish. These techniques are to be used outside the office in between appointments. The hope is that these techniques will help the individual replace the distressing thoughts with positive coping strategies. This is a time for the individual to become comfortable and trusting of the therapist. Building this relationship will help the individual to share and process their thoughts more freely during EMDR therapy.

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Stage 3: Assessment

A specific distressing event/memory is recognized for treatment using the EMDR technique. This stage can include one specific event or multiple traumatic incidences. This stage includes the individual recognizing three things:

"1. The vivid visual image(s) related to the memory

2. A negative belief(s) about self

3. Related emotions and body sensations" (Source: www.emdr.com)

The individual is then asked to recognize a positive belief.

A rating system is used to describe the traumatic events during this stage, 10 being the worst you've ever felt, 0 being no distress. The goal is to get the individual to respond with a 0 when thinking about the traumatic event. The positive belief is given a rating between 1 (completely false) to 7 (completely true).

Stage 4: Desensitization (Number Of Sessions Depends On The Number Of Traumatic Events That The Individual Has Experienced)

The therapist has the individual focus on one of the three things they came up with; the image, the negative belief, or the body sensations. While focusing on one of these things, the individual is also led by the EMDR eye movements, taps, or tones. After each stimulus set, the individual is told to empty their mind and notice what idea, impression, memory, or feeling comes up. If the individual becomes uncomfortable, the therapist helps them get back to being focused.

Stage 5: Installation

In this stage, the goal is to replace negative beliefs with positive beliefs. The therapist wants the individual to rate their positive belief as a seven by the end of this stage.

Stage 6: Body Scan

Once the individual has internalized the positive beliefs, the therapist brings up the original traumatic event that was targeted. They ask the individual if there are any physical symptoms such as tension. If the individual responds affirmatively, reprocessing of that traumatic event will occur. Results from multiple EMDR sessions were studied, and the individuals who continued to feel physical symptoms were still destructively influenced by the trauma. EMDR therapy is considered triumphant when no physical symptoms are felt.

Stage 7: Closure

This is the final step in every appointment. The therapist checks in to make sure that the individual feels better at the end than when they started the appointment. If the answer is no, the therapist gives the individual some techniques to calm them and use them outside the office until the next appointment. The individual is told to keep a journal during their week and write down anything that may arise. It is a reminder of the techniques that were learned during their EMDR therapy.

Stage 8: Reevaluation

This is the first step of each appointment. The therapist verifies that the positive beliefs have been upheld and discusses any new events or memories that may need to be processed. Many individuals may feel improvement instantaneously, but the eight stages need to be completed.

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What To Expect

*Some memories may come up that you didn't realize were there. The therapist will help the individual work through them.

*Some individuals feel immediate improvement, but not everyone has the same results. Trust the process, no matter how long it may take.

*The event you thought needed the processing may bring about other memories that need more immediate processing.

*Go into the process with an open mind and trust so that the thoughts and memories will flow smoother.

How To Find An EMDR Therapist

Not all therapists are trained in EMDR therapy. It is important to find a practitioner who has specialized training and experience with this therapy. You can look for EMDR Therapist in a search. Most insurance will cover this type of therapy because it is included in standard psychotherapy. There is extensive educational background required to be accepted into this type of training.

To be accepted into EMDR training, medical doctors need to have a specialty in Psychiatry. Nurses need to have a Master's in Nursing with a specialty in psychiatric nursing. Mental Health Clinicians need to have a Master's or Doctorate in a mental health field.

Books About EMDR Therapy

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*Getting Past Your Past: Take Control of Your Life with Self-Help Techniques from EMDR Therapy, by Francine Shapiro, PhD

*EMDR: The Breakthrough Therapy for Overcoming Anxiety, Stress, and Trauma, by Francine Shapiro, PhD

*The EMDR Coloring Book: A Calming Resource for Adults - Featuring 200 Words of Fine Art Paired with 200 Positive Affirmations, by Mark Odland

*Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) Therapy, Third Edition: Basic Principles, Protocols, and Procedures, by Francine Shapiro, PhD

*An EMDR Therapy Primer, Second Edition: From Practicum to Practice, by Barbara Hensley, PhD

*Small Wonders: Healing Childhood Trauma with EMDR, by Joan Lovett

*EMDR Up Close: Subtleties of Trauma Processing, Dr. Philip Manfield

*Attachment-Focused EMDR: Healing Relational Trauma, by Laurel Parnell PhD

If you have been through any traumatic events that you feel are affecting your everyday functioning, you should contact a trained professional to assist you. Going to ReGain (https://www.regain.us/start/) can be your first step to getting the help you need. It is private, convenient, and will be one of the best things you can do for yourself and your wellness. Do the thing today that your future self will thank you for.

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