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Simple Guide to EMDR

Updated: Feb 4

A girl sits in an EMDR therapy session

Simple Guide to EMDR

EMDR has quickly become a popular psychotherapy treatment. You may have heard a friend mention it or seen an article, or maybe your therapist recommended it. So, what exactly is EMDR?  As therapists, it’s easy to forget that not everyone has the same understanding of therapy and the various types of treatment because they’re not therapists (duh!). So many articles are challenging to understand and are written by therapists for therapists. This article will (hopefully) explain EMDR in a way that makes sense to you! 

What is EMDR?

EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. EMDR is a tested and proven method of psychotherapy that focuses on healing from traumatic events. EMDR is proven to assist in healing trauma and other conditions more quickly than traditional talk therapy.

a girl with PTSD sits on a couch overwhelmed with symptoms prior to starting EMDR

Who might benefit from EMDR?

Lots of people! EMDR is most commonly used to treat individuals with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD.) However, EMDR may be used to treat symptoms of anxiety, depression, dissociative disorders, eating disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorders, or personality disorders. 

Does EMDR work?

While there is some controversy as to why EMDR works, there is no doubt it works. Many research studies have been conducted to validate the effectiveness of EMDR. In this peer-reviewed study, researchers found evidence that supports the positive effects of EMDR therapy. Researchers were able to conclude that EMDR was more effective and worked more quickly than other trauma-focused therapy methods. So, while the “why” is still up for debate, there's no debate that it does work!

a woman holds her face in her hands in overwhelm contemplating EMDR

How Does EMDR Work?

While there are a few different theories about how it works, the prevailing theory is that EMDR helps the brain process “stuck” information by stimulating the left and right hemispheres of the brain. I think of it like how our body heals from a wound. Our bodies naturally know how to heal a scrape; however, if it becomes infected or “stuck,” the healing process can be interrupted.

EMDR is like cleaning out the infected wound so that the natural healing process can take over. 

What do I do in EMDR?

EMDR is an 8-phase treatment. It works by focusing on the past, present, and future. You will develop a treatment plan of past targets to focus on, identify how they come up in the present, and then process them individually. Once you’ve worked through all your targets, you’ll move on to preparing for future triggers that may arise and how you can best navigate them. 

  1. Information gathering: Just like when you check in with a new doctor, you give them a rundown of your medical history. For EMDR, you will talk with your provider about your symptoms, how long you’ve experienced them, and your goals. This information helps your provider identify possible areas of focus for future sessions. 

  2. Preparation: This phase is super essential and, depending on your specific symptoms, can last for a more extended period. During this phase, your provider will help you develop the skills necessary to do EMDR effectively. This step usually begins with learning coping skills to help you manage any feelings that arise inside or outside of your session. 

  3. Assessment: In this phase, your provider will work with you to identify specific symptoms or memories you want to focus on during your sessions. You will create a treatment plan for these “targets” and identify negative beliefs tied to each one and positive beliefs you want to feel instead.

  4. Desensitization: During this phase, your provider will guide you through eye movements, sounds, or taps while you focus on the traumatic event. This process is repeated until your negative feelings towards the trauma become neutral. Note: neutral does not mean that you are happy it happened; it's just that you feel a sense of neutrality when you think about it. It’s important to note here that there is no “wrong” way for you to do EMDR; any thoughts or feelings that arise are just giving you information about what your brain needs to heal. 

  5. Installation: Once you reach a zero or a neutral feeling about the target, you will install new positive beliefs. Your provider will help you focus on the positive beliefs you discussed during the assessment phase or any new ones that have come up during the desensitization. You will then use the same eye movement, tapping, or audio to install these positive beliefs in the place of the beliefs you once held. 

  6. Body Scan: Unfortunately, this step doesn’t include a high-tech machine to scan your body and let you know if your trauma is gone. In this phase, you are the high-tech machine. Your therapist will ask you to be mindful of how your whole body feels, scan from your head to your toes, and report any positive or negative sensations. From there, your therapist will work with you to continue desensitizing (or clearing out) negative sensations and installing (or growing) positive ones. 

  7. Closure: At the end of each session, your provider will help you regain stability and give you information about your subsequent sessions. They will also provide you with coping strategies to utilize if you experience negative thoughts or feelings between sessions. 

  8. Revaluation: The last phase of EMDR therapy is when your provider checks in and sees how things have been since your previous session. Because processing continues after sessions, it's normal to have new thoughts and feelings, and your provider will discuss anything that has come up since your last session. 

An EMDR therapist holds a clipboard and looks at a client.

What’s the catch?

If EMDR has been proven to work, why isn’t everyone doing it? There are a few downsides to EMDR compared to other methods of psychotherapy. EMDR is relatively new; it was created in the late 80s, which may not seem new, but it’s newer than other forms of therapy. Another drawback is that how EMDR works is not fully understood. We know it works; experts can’t agree on why. There are relatively low risks involved with EMDR; the most common “side effect” is negative thoughts or feelings between sessions. It also just may not be the right treatment for you; EMDR focuses more on your connection to your body and “feeling” your feelings than “thinking” about or “understanding” them. 

How long does EMDR take?

Because each individual is unique, has specific goals, and has their own experiences, there is no guaranteed timeline. The length of EMDR will vary depending on your ability to tolerate positive and negative emotions, ground yourself, and your ability to honestly report what comes up during sessions. 

An EMDR therapist faces a client and does an initial session.

Where can I get EMDR therapy?

EMDR should only be performed by a licensed and trained mental health professional and requires additional training beyond a Master's degree. You can find providers in your area by looking online. Most folks have the best luck looking on the EMDR International Association’s website. Therapists will list their bio, credentials and the specific forms of EMDR and issues they specialize in. EMDR can be offered online or in person, and there are a number of online platforms specifically designed for therapists to provide EMDR virtually. 

Is EMDR right for me?

The only way to honestly know if EMDR is right for you is by meeting with a professional. A provider will decide if EMDR would be a good fit for you based on your history, your goals, and a variety of other aspects. If, after meeting with your therapist, it doesn’t feel like a good fit, no sweat. Most therapists will be happy to provide referrals for other providers and types of therapy that are better suited to your needs.

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