Trauma. PTSD. More than three million Americans live with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from horrific life experiences. Though PTSD is associated with people who have served in the military, people can develop PTSD from many different traumatic experiences. First responders like paramedics, police officers, and firefighters experience trauma. People who are victims of sexual assault can have PTSD. Those who were abused as a child can have PTSD. Anyone can experience trauma in some way, shape, or form. The traumatic experiences you may have faced were out of your control. What you can control is how you go about healing from them. There are methods of healing that can help you cope with the side effects of trauma. One way to treat people with trauma-related mental illness is EMDR therapy. This form of therapy is proven to help with the anxiety, delusions, hallucinations, and depression symptoms of PTSD. But what is EMDR?
What is EMDR Therapy?
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a specialized and evidence-based therapy approach that helps people recover from symptoms of emotional distress that may occur from traumatic experiences.
EMDR is more of a mindfulness-based therapy approach. EMDR helps to access and process traumatic memories. This relieves affective distress, the negative beliefs that you held on to are rewired, and your psychological disturbance will be reduced. While you will still remember the events that occurred, you will no longer react with a fight, flight, or freeze stress response.
Studies on EMDR therapy have shown that it is an effective treatment for psychological trauma. If you have a wound on your skin and you keep injuring it, the wound won’t heal. If you stop picking at the wound, it will resume healing. Your mind can heal in the same way. If you have a mental block caused by a disturbing event, the suffering will only get worse. Once you remove that block through EMDR, your brain can continue to heal.
EMDR therapy has also proven to be helpful to treat Addiction, Anxiety, Depression, Eating Disorders, phobias, grief, dissociative disorders, and panic attacks.
How Does EMDR Therapy Work?
Each EMDR session lasts between 60 and 90 minutes. EMDR contains elements of cognitive-behavioral, interpersonal, experiential, and psychodynamic therapies. Research shows that people who undergo EMDR therapy can experience benefits earlier than those using conventional therapy modalities. Trauma can interrupt the brain’s natural ability to resolve issues caused by painful emotional/psychological experiences. EMDR serves as a therapeutic framework that can restore this process. Studies have shown that the success rate of EMDR therapy is between 84 and 90 percent of single-trauma victims no longer show signs of PTSD after three sessions of EMDR.
What should I Expect in an EMDR Therapy session?
EMDR is an eight-phase treatment combining different elements to maximize its treatment effects. An emphasis is placed on three periods of the patient’s life; past, present, and future. This approach is used to help identify trauma of the past, its causes, and its effects on an individual in the present moment. The focus on the future is to assist in developing a guided plan toward recovery.
Bilateral stipulations like eye movements are used during a part of your session after the target memory is determined. How do eye movements help? Well, the provider will move their hand back and forth in your line of vision while asking you to focus on specific elements of your traumatic experience. It seems like some freaky hypnosis thing, but researchers believe that the eye movements mimic REM (rapid eye movement). The REM cycle happens when you are in deep sleep. Because your mind thinks you are in an unconscious state, the internal associations of trauma that plague your mind are allowed to process because there’s less resistance from your conscious mind.
You should walk away from your EMDR sessions with a new perception of your trauma. For instance, if you have a lot of self-blame for what happened, you may leave your session with a more objective view of the situation. You can realize that it wasn’t your fault. This will allow you to forgive yourself and move on.
The Steps of EMDR Therapy
The first step is just going through your history. A therapist who specializes in EMDR will assess whether or not you are ready for treatment. If you are in the right headspace to receive treatment, a treatment plan will be developed.
The main targets of this first phase will be discussing the past incident(s). Then the client and therapist will pinpoint triggers or things in the present that cause you emotional distress. You will walk through what happened to you with your therapist. Based on your particular situation and set of needs, the provider will teach you skills that can help with triggers in future situations.
Results from treatment are a lot faster for single event trauma victims. Single event trauma in adulthood can be treated within hours after a few sessions of prep work. Those with childhood trauma or people who have multiple traumas throughout life may take longer to heal from those traumas.
The second phase is all about preparation. In the second phase of your treatment, you’ll learn more skills. Your provider ensures that you have multiple avenues to handle emotional distress in your life. There are certain techniques that work better for some and not others. You will discover what works best for you during this phase. You’ll leave each session with some homework.
These assignments will most-likely be imagery and stress reduction techniques to practice between sessions. These could be techniques such as mindfulness and deep breathing. No one likes homework, but this kind of work will be completely worth it. It’s not often that homework is actually life-changing. Will you use the Pythagorean theorem? Probably not. Emotion regulation skills? Absolutely.
Phase three is where your therapist will set up the target. Together you will identify your starting point of the target, your negative beliefs, and the physical sensations you experience when you are stimulated and focus on each target memory.
The next phases will focus on the goals that were set up at the beginning of therapy. These goals are processed using EMDR and targets.
Positive beliefs/thoughts are established to counteract negative thought patterns. During this process, you are instructed to focus on images, negative thoughts, and body sensations while simultaneously using sets of bilateral stimulation like tones, taps, or eye movements. After each set of stimulation, the therapist guides you through processing these experiences. The therapist will have you take notice of whatever happens.
Next, after each stimulation set, you will be asked to let your mind go in any direction once the bilateral stimulation begins. From there you must notice the thoughts, sensations, visuals, or memories come up. The EMDR therapist will move forward with the next area of focus depending on your response.
If the sets of stimulations cause you a lot of distress, the therapist will use established techniques to steer you in the right direction. If no distress arises, you will focus on the positive belief associated with that target.
The closure phase occurs with each session when a target is “uncleared.” Uncleared just means this target requires more work. The processing that is done within a day may need to continue in another session. The therapist will ask you to keep weekly logs of events that occur and how you feel about them. This helps clients keep in mind all of the techniques they learned so they don’t lose what they have already mastered.
Phase eight is all about reflection of your therapeutic journey. What progress have you made? What still needs work? This phase includes EMDR techniques targeting all related historical events that still may need more work and current life events causing emotional distress.
EMDR is Proven to Help with Trauma
EMDR is a great treatment option because it allows you to heal and process your emotions in your own brain versus talk therapy. Talk therapy can be great but it consists of a lot of input from a therapist. There are fewer side effects than typical psychiatric medication but you may experience light-headedness, vivid dreams, or heightened awareness. It may be uncomfortable at first considering you will process all the experiences that trigger you, but you have to trust the process. This treatment is highly researched, evidence-based, and a very successful therapeutic approach to help treat people suffering from the results of traumatic experiences.
You do not have to experience life-long suffering due to the traumatic events that occurred in your life. The distress you have experienced due to events of the past can heal like any other wound in your body. People forget that your brain can get sick just like a kidney or a heart. You are not broken just because you experience life differently after a traumatic moment or moments in your life. EMDR therapy can help you process those incidents and come to peace with what happened. A shift in mindset can not only lead you to resolve your stress response symptoms, but it can help you have a happier life.
Editors Note: This article has been updated and was originally posted on May 2, 2019.
Therapist & Behavioral Health Intensive Outpatient Program Facilitator
Dierdre Wilson is an EMDR therapist (Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing) who works with clients who have trauma and other anxiety disorders. She also helps run our BHIOP group. Her main goal is to provide as much support as she can and teach solid skills/tools to help empower my clients.