Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing

What is EMDR?

EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) therapy is a type of psychotherapy that is used to treat psychological conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, and depression. EMDR was developed in the late 1980s by psychologist Francine Shapiro, and since then it has become widely used in the treatment of trauma and related mental health issues.

It involves a series of structured sessions in which the therapist guides the patient through a process of recalling traumatic or distressing experiences, while simultaneously using specific eye movements, sounds, or other forms of sensory stimulation to facilitate the processing of the emotions and thoughts associated with the experience.

During the EMDR sessions, the therapist will work with the patient to identify negative thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations associated with the traumatic event, and then use a series of eye movements or other forms of bilateral stimulation to help the patient reprocess the experience in a more adaptive way. The goal of EMDR is to help the patient overcome the distressing emotions and thoughts associated with the trauma and to promote healing and recovery.

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How does EMDR work?

There are several theories as to why EMDR works. These have been proposed based on research and clinical experience. Here are some of the proposed theories:

  1. Adaptive Information Processing: One of the main theories behind EMDR is that it helps to facilitate the brain's natural ability to process and integrate traumatic experiences. Traumatic experiences can become "stuck" in the brain, which can lead to ongoing distress and symptoms such as flashbacks, nightmares, and avoidance behaviors. EMDR may help to "unstick" these memories and promote the brain's natural healing processes.
  2. Dual Attention Stimulation: Another theory is that the eye movements or other forms of bilateral stimulation used in EMDR helps to activate both sides of the brain, which can facilitate the processing of traumatic memories. This may be similar to the way that REM sleep (during which the eyes move rapidly) helps to consolidate memories and process emotions.
  3. Desensitization and Reconsolidation: Some researchers have suggested that EMDR works by "desensitizing" the brain to the traumatic memories, meaning that the emotional intensity of the memories is reduced. Additionally, it may help to "reconsolidate" the memories in a more adaptive way, meaning that the negative emotions and beliefs associated with the memory are replaced with more positive and adaptive ones.

The exact mechanism by which EMDR works is still being studied and may vary depending on the individual and the specific symptoms being treated. However, research has shown that EMDR can be effective in reducing symptoms of PTSD, anxiety, and depression, and promoting overall mental health and well-being.

What does an EMDR session look like?

An EMDR session typically lasts around 60-90 minutes and will involve several distinct phases. Here's an overview of what an EMDR session might look like:

  1. Assessment: The first session or two will typically involve a thorough assessment of the patient's mental health history, symptoms, and treatment goals. The therapist will work with the patient to identify specific traumatic experiences or negative beliefs that are causing distress.
  2. Preparation: Before beginning the actual EMDR, the therapist will work with the patient to develop coping skills and relaxation techniques that can be used during the session. This might involve practicing deep breathing or visualization exercises.
  3. Desensitization: During the main phase of the EMDR session, the therapist will guide the patient through recalling a specific traumatic memory or negative belief while simultaneously using eye movements, sounds, or other forms of bilateral stimulation to facilitate processing. The therapist will help the patient focus on the negative emotions, thoughts, and physical sensations associated with the memory, while also guiding them to develop more positive and adaptive beliefs and emotions.
  4. Installation: Once the distress associated with the traumatic memory has been reduced, the therapist will help the patient "install" new, positive beliefs and emotions to replace the old negative ones.
  5. Body scan: After the desensitization and installation phases, the therapist may conduct a body scan to ensure that the patient is no longer experiencing distress or tension related to the traumatic memory.
  6. Closure: At the end of the session, the therapist will help the patient return to a calm and relaxed state, and may provide additional coping strategies or homework to practice between sessions.

The number of EMDR sessions needed will vary depending on the individual and the severity of their symptoms. Some people may experience significant relief after just a few sessions, while others may need more extensive treatment over several months or years.

Who is EMDR for?

EMDR was originally developed to treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and has since been used to help individuals who have experienced a wide range of traumatic events. However, EMDR has also been found to be helpful for a variety of other mental health conditions, including:

  • Anxiety Disorders: EMDR can be helpful in treating anxiety disorders, including panic disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and phobias.
  • Depression: EMDR can be used to treat depression, particularly in cases where the depression is linked to a traumatic experience.
  • Addiction: EMDR can be used as part of a comprehensive treatment plan for addiction, helping individuals to process underlying trauma and address negative beliefs that may be contributing to addictive behaviors.
  • Eating Disorders: EMDR can be used to treat underlying trauma that may be contributing to the development or maintenance of an eating disorder.
  • Chronic Pain: EMDR may be helpful in treating chronic pain, particularly in cases where the pain is linked to trauma or emotional distress.
  • Relationship Issues: EMDR can be helpful in addressing underlying trauma that may be contributing to relationship issues, such as difficulty with trust or intimacy.

How does EMDR impact teens with trauma?

EMDR can be very effective for teens who have experienced trauma. Adolescence is a time of significant change and growth, and traumatic experiences can have a profound impact on a teen's mental health, development, and future wellbeing. Here are some of the ways that EMDR can impact teens with trauma:

  • Reducing Symptoms: EMDR has been found to be effective in reducing symptoms of PTSD, anxiety, and depression in teens who have experienced trauma. By helping teens process traumatic memories and develop more adaptive beliefs and coping skills, EMDR can help reduce distress and improve overall functioning.
  • Improving Self-Esteem: Trauma can have a significant impact on a teen's self-esteem and sense of self-worth. EMDR can help teens develop a more positive and realistic sense of self, promoting feelings of self-efficacy and empowerment.
  • Enhancing Resilience: By helping teens develop coping skills and strategies for managing distress, EMDR can help build resilience and promote long-term recovery and wellbeing.
  • Improving Relationships: Trauma can also impact a teen's ability to form healthy relationships with others. EMDR can help teens process past traumas and address negative beliefs and behaviors that may be contributing to relationship issues, promoting more positive and fulfilling social connections.

EMDR can be a powerful tool for teens who have experienced trauma. It is important to work with a licensed and trained mental health professional who specializes in EMDR and has experience working with adolescents. The therapist can help tailor the treatment to the specific needs and developmental stage of the teen, and provide guidance and support throughout the process.

What are the benefits of EMDR?

EMDR has been shown to provide a number of benefits for individuals who have experienced trauma or other mental health conditions. Here are some of the key benefits of EMDR:

  • Reduced Symptoms: EMDR has been found to be effective in reducing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, and depression. By helping individuals process traumatic memories and develop more adaptive beliefs and coping skills, EMDR can help reduce distress and improve overall functioning.
  • Faster Results: EMDR can often produce results more quickly than traditional talk therapy, with some individuals experiencing significant improvement in as little as three sessions.
  • Long-Term Relief: EMDR has been shown to produce long-lasting relief from symptoms of trauma and other mental health conditions. Research has shown that the benefits of EMDR can persist for years after treatment.
  • Non-Invasive: EMDR is a non-invasive treatment that does not require medication or other invasive procedures. This makes it a good option for individuals who prefer to avoid medication or other more invasive forms of treatment.
  • Versatility: EMDR can be used to treat a wide range of mental health conditions, including PTSD, anxiety, depression, and addiction. It can also be used to address a variety of other issues, such as chronic pain, relationship issues, and self-esteem.
  • Patient Empowerment: EMDR places a strong emphasis on patient empowerment, helping individuals take an active role in their own healing process. By working with a therapist to identify and address underlying beliefs and behaviors, individuals can develop a greater sense of control over their thoughts and emotions.

Overall, EMDR can be a highly effective and versatile treatment option for individuals who have experienced trauma or other mental health conditions. It is important to work with a licensed and trained mental health professional to determine if EMDR is appropriate for your individual needs and treatment goals.

What are the downfalls of EMDR?

While EMDR can be a highly effective and safe treatment option for individuals who have experienced trauma or other mental health conditions, there are some potential downsides to consider. Here are some of the downsides of EMDR:

  • Emotional Intensity: EMDR can be emotionally intense, particularly during the processing phase when individuals are asked to recall traumatic memories. This emotional intensity can be overwhelming for some individuals and may require additional support and resources to manage.
  • False Memories: Some individuals have reported experiencing false memories or distorted perceptions during EMDR. While research suggests that false memories are relatively rare and tend to dissipate over time, they can be distressing for individuals who experience them.
  • Potential for Re-traumatization: In some cases, EMDR can trigger intense emotional responses or re-traumatize individuals who have experienced trauma. This is why it is important to work with a licensed and trained mental health professional who can help ensure that the therapy is administered in a safe and supportive environment.
  • Limited Research: While there is a growing body of research supporting the effectiveness of EMDR, some critics argue that more research is needed to fully understand how and why the therapy works.
  • Not Suitable for Everyone: EMDR may not be suitable for individuals who have a history of psychosis, bipolar disorder, or certain other mental health conditions. It is important to work with a mental health professional to determine if EMDR is appropriate for your individual needs and treatment goals.

Overall, EMDR can be a highly effective and safe treatment option for many individuals who have experienced trauma or other mental health conditions. However, it is important to carefully weigh the potential benefits and downsides of the therapy and work with a licensed and trained mental health professional to determine if it is appropriate for your individual needs and treatment goals.

Are there any symptoms to expect from EMDR?

While the specific symptoms of EMDR can vary depending on the individual and their treatment goals, here are some common symptoms that individuals may experience during or after EMDR:

  • Emotional Intensity: EMDR can be emotionally intense, particularly during the processing phase when individuals are asked to recall traumatic memories. This emotional intensity can manifest as feelings of anxiety, fear, anger, or sadness.
  • Physical Sensations: EMDR can also cause physical sensations such as increased heart rate, sweating, and trembling.
  • Vivid Memories: During EMDR, individuals may experience vivid memories or flashbacks related to the traumatic events they are processing.
  • Dreams and Nightmares: Some individuals may experience dreams or nightmares related to the trauma they are processing during or after EMDR.
  • Changes in Self-Perception: EMDR can lead to changes in how individuals perceive themselves and their relationship to the traumatic events they have experienced.
  • Improved Coping Skills: EMDR can help individuals develop improved coping skills and strategies for managing difficult emotions and memories.

It is important to note that while these symptoms may be uncomfortable, they are often a normal and expected part of the therapeutic process. It is important to work with a licensed and trained mental health professional who can help prepare you for the emotional intensity of EMDR and provide support and resources as needed. If you are experiencing severe or distressing symptoms during or after EMDR, it is important to discuss them with your therapist to ensure that you are receiving appropriate care and support. You can see our other therapy practices we use to help here: https://www.havenwoodacademy.org/therapy/

Resources:

If you have a troubled teenage daughter or your family is struggling with communication, conflicts, or other challenges, we invite you to contact Havenwood Academy today. Our experienced and compassionate team of therapists and counselors is dedicated to helping families heal and grow together through family therapy and other evidence-based treatments.

At Havenwood Academy, we believe that every family has the potential for growth and positive change, no matter how challenging their situation may seem. We offer a safe and supportive environment for families to explore their issues, learn new communication and problem-solving skills, and build stronger relationships.

References

Shapiro, F. (2014). The role of eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy in medicine: Addressing the psychological and physical symptoms stemming from adverse life experiences. The Permanente journal. Retrieved February 28, 2023, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3951033/

Valiente-Gómez, A., Moreno-Alcázar, A., Treen, D., Cedrón, C., Colom, F., Pérez, V., & Amann, B. L. (2017, September 26). EMDR BEYOND PTSD: A systematic literature review. Frontiers in psychology. Retrieved February 28, 2023, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5623122/