How Does EMDR Therapy Work?

How Does EMDR Therapy Work?

August 19, 2023


EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) therapy is a psychotherapy approach used to treat various mental health conditions, particularly trauma-related disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). 

The therapy was developed by psychologist Francine Shapiro in the late 1980s and has gained widespread recognition and acceptance since then.

EMDR therapy is based on the idea that traumatic experiences can overwhelm the brain’s natural ability to process and cope with them effectively, leading to the development of symptoms and distress. 

The goal of EMDR is to help the individual reprocess these traumatic memories in a way that reduces their emotional intensity and allows for adaptive resolution.

How Does EMDR Therapy Work?
Therapist taking notes on clipboard sitting on a couch at therapy session | Image Credit:

Key Components of EMDR Therapy

  • Assessment: The therapist conducts an initial assessment to identify the target traumatic memory or memories that will be the focus of the EMDR treatment.
  • Preparation: The therapist works with the individual to establish a therapeutic relationship and create a sense of safety and trust. Coping skills and relaxation techniques may be taught to ensure the individual is adequately prepared to deal with any emotional distress that may arise during the therapy sessions.
  • Desensitization: During the desensitization phase, the therapist helps the individual access the target traumatic memory while simultaneously engaging in bilateral stimulation. This stimulation can take various forms, such as following the therapist’s finger movements with the eyes, listening to alternating sounds, or using hand taps. The bilateral stimulation is thought to facilitate the processing of the traumatic memory.
  • Reprocessing: As the bilateral stimulation is maintained, the individual is guided to explore the traumatic memory and associated thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations. The therapist may ask questions or provide prompts to facilitate the reprocessing and help the individual develop more adaptive perspectives on the traumatic experience.
  • Installation: This phase focuses on strengthening positive beliefs, insights, or resolutions that have emerged during the reprocessing stage. The individual is encouraged to connect with their inner resources and develop a greater sense of self-efficacy and resilience.
  • Body scan: The therapist helps the individual notice any remaining tension or physical sensations associated with the traumatic memory and guides them in processing these sensations until they are resolved.
  • Closure: At the end of each session, the therapist ensures that the individual is in a stable state and provides support to manage any lingering emotions or thoughts that may arise after the session.
  • Reevaluation: In subsequent sessions, the therapist assesses the progress made and determines if further targeting of specific memories or associated issues is necessary.

The precise mechanisms by which EMDR therapy works are not fully understood, but it is believed that the bilateral stimulation used during the therapy may facilitate the brain’s information processing system, allowing the traumatic memories to be reprocessed and integrated in a more adaptive manner. This can lead to a reduction in distressing symptoms and the development of new insights and perspectives on the traumatic experience.

It’s important to note that EMDR therapy should be conducted by a trained and licensed mental health professional who specializes in this approach. If you are considering EMDR therapy, it is recommended to seek out a qualified therapist to guide you through the process.

The Main Benefits of EMDR Therapy
Female psychologist using a laptop while sitting in a therapy session | Image Credit:

Main Benefits

EMDR therapy has been found to offer several benefits for individuals experiencing trauma-related disorders and other mental health conditions. Here are some of the main benefits associated with EMDR therapy:

  • Trauma resolution: EMDR therapy is highly effective in treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other trauma-related conditions. It helps individuals process traumatic memories, reducing their emotional intensity and allowing for adaptive resolution. This can lead to a significant reduction in PTSD symptoms, such as intrusive thoughts, nightmares, flashbacks, and hypervigilance.
  • Symptom reduction: EMDR therapy has been shown to alleviate a wide range of symptoms associated with trauma and other mental health conditions. These may include anxiety, depression, panic attacks, phobias, guilt, shame, anger, and self-esteem issues. By addressing the underlying traumatic experiences, EMDR can lead to a reduction in these symptoms.
  • Rapid results: EMDR therapy is often praised for its efficiency and ability to achieve results relatively quickly compared to some other therapies. While the number of sessions required can vary depending on individual factors and the complexity of the issues being addressed, EMDR is known to provide significant relief in a shorter timeframe compared to traditional talk therapies.
  • Integration of traumatic experiences: EMDR therapy aims to help individuals integrate traumatic experiences into their overall life narrative. By reprocessing these memories, individuals can gain new insights, develop more adaptive beliefs about themselves and the world, and create a coherent narrative that includes the traumatic event but is not defined by it. This integration can promote healing and a sense of wholeness.
  • Empowerment and self-efficacy: EMDR therapy focuses on accessing and strengthening an individual’s inner resources and resilience. Through the therapy process, individuals can develop a greater sense of empowerment, self-confidence, and self-efficacy. They learn to trust in their own ability to cope with challenging situations and to move forward in their lives.
  • Generalization of positive effects: The benefits of EMDR therapy often extend beyond the specific traumatic memory being targeted. Many individuals report that as they process and resolve one traumatic memory, it positively impacts their overall well-being and their ability to cope with other stressors and life challenges.
  • Research support: EMDR therapy has a substantial body of research supporting its effectiveness. Numerous studies have demonstrated its efficacy in treating PTSD, and it has been recognized as an evidence-based treatment by various organizations, including the World Health Organization (WHO) and the American Psychiatric Association (APA).

It’s important to keep in mind that individual experiences may vary, and not everyone may respond to EMDR therapy in the same way. The benefits of EMDR can be best realized when the therapy is delivered by a qualified and experienced practitioner who tailors the treatment to the individual’s specific needs and circumstances.

How Does EMDR Therapy Work?
Psychologist in eyeglasses holding notebook while sitting on armchair in a consultation room | Image Credit:

Hiring an EMDR Therapist

To hire an EMDR therapist, follow these steps:

  • Research: Look for licensed mental health professionals who specialize in EMDR therapy. One you may want to consider taking a look at is EMDR specialist Janae Kim. Always check credentials, experience, and reputation before making that final decision.
  • Referrals: Seek recommendations from trusted sources like healthcare providers, therapists, or support groups. Online directories and professional associations can also provide listings of EMDR therapists in your area.
  • Consultation: Contact potential therapists to schedule an initial consultation. Discuss their expertise, approach, fees, and availability. Assess their rapport and ensure they create a safe and supportive environment.
  • Credentials and Licensing: Verify that the therapist is licensed and has received proper EMDR training from a reputable organization.
  • Personal Fit: Consider the therapist’s personality, communication style, and cultural sensitivity. It’s crucial to find someone you feel comfortable working with.
  • Cost and Insurance: Inquire about fees, insurance coverage, and payment options. Determine if the therapist’s services align with your budget and financial resources.
  • Trust your instincts: Ultimately, choose a therapist you trust and feel confident in their abilities to guide you through the EMDR therapy process. Openly discuss any concerns or questions you may have.

Remember that finding the right therapist is a personal process, and it may take some time to find the best match for your needs.

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