Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a well-researched and proven effective treatment for trauma. Often utilized as a treatment option for those with PTSD in addition to talk therapy(psychotherapy) or other forms of treatment. The term EMDR comes up frequently as a possible treatment, but what is it exactly? It is a very experiential process thereby making it hard to describe, everyone’s experience is unique.

The time frame for this treatment is dependent on the client’s history. The therapist determines how many sessions are needed by in the first few sessions. Attendance is crucial as a number of intense past experiences are revisited and processed in a relatively short period the therapist has to ensure that the client readily has access to the professional support that they may need. This support comes in the form of regularly attended sessions, typically for eight or more weeks.

What to expect during an EMDR session?

Several sessions may be necessary before actually conducting desensitization. The desensitization process begins by identifying the targeted event and working with the memories, sensations, insights associated with the trauma. A trained therapist will guide their client through the process of using stimulation either often from synchronized light flashes, vibration paddles placed in the hands, tracking a finger back and forth in front of the face, or other stimulations that facilitate rapid eye movement. The therapist then verbally guides the client to experience aspects of the memory for a short period usually around 30 seconds with the goal of opening up the ‘stuck memory’ to new useful emotions and thoughts.

The EMDR protocol includes soliciting verbalized reframing of the memory that emphasizes a more positive interpretation. Body tension and sensations involved in the reprocessing are watched with careful attention by the therapist, often asking their client to observe the way their body feels and then helps the client understand and resolve any troubling physical sensation. An intentional closing at the end of the session helps the client come back into their present environment and provides customized strategies for the continued processing of that experience between sessions.  Throughout the entire process, the client is in control, able to stop or take a break at any time.

How does EMDR work?

It seems to function in a similar way to dreaming. It allows the client to go back to a memory that is “frozen in time,” but this time revisiting it in a safe and supported atmosphere. The client is directed to experience the trauma in a way that allows the brain to process it more objectively than in the initial occurrence. The session provides a learning opportunity for a new healthier perspective on the trauma. By helping to resolve the state of shock and emotional pain around the target event/s the client is able to make therapeutic progress much more rapidly.

It should be noted that EMDR is used as a treatment for a wide range of clinical diagnoses. For a detailed description of where EMDR is shown effective and where it isn’t, check out this article by Dr. Francine Shapiro in the New York Times.