5 Ways EMDR Therapy Can Help
There is psychotherapy available to specific populations that can benefit from EMDR.
EMDR stands for eye movement desensitization and reprocessing. It involves a process of visualizing distressing events while stimulating back-and-forth eye movements or similar stimulus. The goals of EMDR therapy are to give people the tools to deal with past, present and future trauma and to focus on the positive. Those who receive EMDR therapy are hoping to receive a reduction in physiological arousal and in traumatic memories and emotional distress. Those suffering from anxiety, depression, PTSD, and panic disorders benefit the most from this type of therapy.
Experts at the EMDR International Association state:
Stress responses are part of our natural fight, flight, or freeze instincts. When distress from a disturbing event remains, the upsetting images, thoughts, and emotions may create feelings of overwhelm, of being back in that moment, or of being “frozen in time.”
This therapy has shown many suffering individuals hope.
There are certain details about EMDR that will be beneficial for readers to understand before going into the main goals of the therapy.
The use of EMDR strategies are currently recognized as a legitimate therapy practice by the American Psychiatric Association, American Psychological Association, World Health Organization, and many others.
While EMDR is controversial and studies on its efficacy have returned mixed results, people who have post-traumatic stress disorder, phobias or other trauma have reported success from it.
More specifically, in 2012, a study found that 77% of 22 EMDR participants with PTSD reported that their symptoms significantly improved after treatment. While this study only used a small number of participants and while it cannot be proven that the changes were due to the therapy rather than another factor, 77% improvement is quite compelling.
Why is EMDR so controversial? There is some discussion among scientists about the effectiveness of EMDR. Research continues to understand how it works. Inexperienced or not properly trained therapists will cause variability in treatment. Some may prefer other coping strategies for traumatic experiences. This controversy doesn’t necessarily invalidate the potential benefits of EMDR. It does emphasize the importance of receiving this therapy from a qualified and experienced practitioner, as well as being well-informed about its potential risks and benefits.
What does EMDR do?
EMDR was originally developed in 1987 in order to treat those with PTSD, for those who have past disturbing experiences and memories that continue to come up.
According to the American Psychological Association:
During EMDR therapy, clinical observations suggest that an accelerated learning process is stimulated by EMDR’s standardized procedures, which incorporate the use of eye movements and other forms of rhythmic left-right (bilateral) stimulation (e.g., tones or taps). While clients briefly focus on the trauma memory and simultaneously experience bilateral stimulation (BLS), the vividness and emotion of the memory are reduced.
There are specific phases of EMDR that licensed therapists guide their clients through in order to see success.
- History taking and treatment planning
- Body Scan
The recommended treatment time is over a span of 12 sessions and each session lasts about an hour.
5 Ways EMDR Therapy Can Help
- Changing Memory Storage
- Dealing with Past Trauma
- Dealing with Present and Future Trauma
- Increasing Positivity
- Using Full Integration
1. Changing Memory Storage
One of the aims of EMDR is to teach a person to recall a distressing memory or traumatic event without being overwhelmed by emotion. However, the goal in EMDR is to change how the brain stores the memory instead of consciously trying to change the emotions or thoughts around it. This is done by having the person focus on the memory while forms of what is called bilateral stimulation, or left and right stimulation, occur in the forms of eye movement, tones, or tapping. This makes the memory less vivid.
Over time, traumatic memories can contribute to pathology, which justifies the need for a therapy like EMDR.
A specific example is using EMDR with someone who has had traumatic childhood experiences. “These experiences may be encoded with survival mechanisms and include feelings of danger that are inappropriate for adults. However, these past events retain their power because they have not been appropriately assimilated over time into adaptive networks,” (Hase, et al.).
Individuals cannot control their memories or thoughts; however, with the use of EMDR therapy, they are able to utilize techniques to stunt the memory.
2. Dealing with Past Trauma
Unfortunately, childhood trauma is a common occurrence. Adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs, are so common that the CDC reports “About 61% of adults surveyed across 25 states reported that they had experienced at least one type of ACE, and nearly 1 in 6 reported they had experienced four or more types of ACEs.”
What are considered adverse childhood experiences?
- Physical, emotional, and/or sexual abuse
- Physical and/or emotional neglect
- Mental illness
- Domestic violence
- Substance abuse
- Incarcerated relative
If left untreated, ACEs can wreak havoc on an individual’s physical and mental health and well-being. A child or young person who experiences these types of trauma can suffer consequences in all areas of their lives for several years, even sometimes for the rest of their lives.
The past trauma that EMDR treats is not limited to a single event or series of events. For example, in a case study described by the American Psychological Association, an ex-soldier suffering from PTSD (Post- Traumatic Stress Disorder) was treated in relation to several distressing memories of combat he had experienced. However, the sessions also dealt with a memory he had from his childhood of being told his parents were separating. After several sessions of EMDR, the veteran reported a decrease in both physical and psychological symptoms when recalling the memories.
Common PTSD symptoms include:
- severe anxiety
3. Dealing with Present and Future Trauma
Another goal of EMDR therapy is to reduce distress around present-day triggers and give people the tools they need to deal with trauma in the future. As with past events, the present-day events that impede function are identified. Patients go through a similar process of describing the incident accompanied by the bilateral stimulus.
A therapist will also work with patients to develop the necessary skills to cope with distress as a result of events in the future without needing to return to therapy.
EMDR therapists can teach trauma patients coping skills such as using grounding techniques, practicing body scanning, coping ahead, and using body movement.
4. Increasing Positivity
One element of EMDR therapy is the identification of a positive belief. This positive belief can serve as something the person can focus on when other distressing events arise. Allowing the patient to begin reframing even traumatic events in a positive way is another one of the goals of EMDR therapy. This was the case with the veteran in the APA case study, who shifted his belief from the idea that he failed his fellow soldiers to the belief that he did his best.
Increasing positivity can be achieved by stating positive affirmations, visualizing positive images, remembering positive memories, breathing calmly while relaxing the body, and by visualizing a successful future.
An article featured in Vancouver EMDR Therapy discusses the three ways that EMDR can help with motivation. Experts recommend patients and clients do the following:
- Let go with negative thoughts
“EMDR can target these negative beliefs. This will clear up single incidents in a person’s life that are connected with the negative belief of clearing up numerous memories that are associated. This allows people to accomplish their goals and change negative beliefs into positive ones such as I am good enough, I am smart and capable, I am effective, I deserve to be happy and successful.”
- Let go of the past
“Many negative memories from childhood play a role in blocking motivation. EMDR targets memories associated with negative beliefs about ourselves and allows for more adaptive beliefs and positive memories of times when we have been successful in our lives.”
- Visualize success
“At this point in EMDR therapy they can usually visualize [life] without disturbance or with very little. If any disturbance comes up for them then it is processed until they are able to visualize being successful and managing life events and stressors without disturbance. This process of visualization allows people to see and truly feel a sense of success.”
Finding ways to stay positive and invite positivity into the mind are key when trying to recover from trauma or another mental health issue when in EMDR therapy.
5. Using Full Integration
EMDR therapy is not considered complete until the patient has no mental or physical distress around past or present trauma and has the tools in place to deal with future trauma. Different responses may be necessary for these different events. While EMDR is generally considered a fairly efficient approach to dealing with trauma, efficiency is not its top goal, and a therapist will continue working with a client on memories, triggers, and preparation for the future until the client seems ready to move on.
With that being said, EMDR should be used in conjunction with other psychotherapy treatment methods such as cognitive-behavioral therapy.
Clinical Psychologist Stephen A. Tobin, Ph.D. has over 40 years of experience in the field as a Gestalt therapist and uses EMDR techniques as well. He states:
“I am finding EMDR techniques an excellent adjunct to my work as a gestalt therapist. Because EMDR came essentially out of cognitive-behavior therapy, with rather rigid procedures, it is necessary to modify these procedures to integrate them into other therapeutic styles, and numerous theorists, including me, have been attempting that integration. I have found the use of EMDR techniques very helpful in speeding up the process of my work with long-term clients; in achieving a more complete resolution of unfinished, incompletely metabolized issues from the past; in increasing the internalization of what the self psychologists would term needed self-object functions; and in helping clients increase the complexity and resiliency of self-support functions.”
Conclusion About How EMDR Therapy Can Help
While all trauma-related therapy generally focuses on reducing a patient’s distress, EMDR is unique in its use of bilateral stimulation. By integrating mental and physical sensations, the goals of EMDR therapy are to ultimately enable the patient to lead a balanced and fulfilling life.
It’s important to remember that while EMDR can be highly effective for many individuals, not everyone will respond the same way. Individual results may vary. It’s also crucial to receive EMDR from a qualified and experienced therapist who specializes in trauma treatment. If you or someone you know is considering EMDR therapy for PTSD or other trauma-related issues, consult with a mental health professional to decide whether this approach is recommended.
Master of Education (M.Ed.) | Northeastern State University
Behavior and Learning Disorders | Georgia State University