Take a minute and think about what happens when a splinter or a piece of glass gets lodged under your skin. If you leave it be, you’ll likely be in near constant pain and the wound may start to fester. But if you remove it, your body moves quickly to heal the wound. The foreign object was blocking physical healing from taking place.

Scientists are finding that emotional trauma works in a similar way to physical trauma. The memory of a traumatic event can get stuck, blocking your brain from processing it in a healthy way and healing from it.[1]

That’s where a type of therapy known as eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) comes in. EMDR helps your brain process traumatic memories so they no longer hold the same power over you. More than 30 controlled studies show that EMDR works, and quickly, to resolve trauma. Read on to learn what is EMDR exactly, how it works in the brain, and who would benefit from it.

What is EMDR?

EMDR therapy allows your brain to integrate the unprocessed memories of a trauma. It helps soften the memory, making the disturbing images and emotions less vivid. You learn to take what is useful about a traumatic event, and store the memory in such a way that it no longer distresses you.[

For example, if you were involved in a near-fatal car accident, you may still feel awash with fear every time you think about it. Perhaps your heart starts to beat faster and you feel lightheaded. According to EMDR, your brain hasn’t processed the memory properly, and your body keeps reliving the trauma over and over again. 

What does EMDR treat

Therapists typically use EMDR to treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). 

“Any time trauma is playing a significant role in blocking someone from moving forward and achieving a state of wellbeing, I think EMDR can play a critical role,” says Ellen Vora, MD, a holistic psychiatrist.

Most of the research on EMDR focuses on trauma, although therapists might also use it to treat anxiety, depression, addiction, and eating disorders.

EMDR has been widely heralded for working quickly to treat trauma. What may have once taken years of talk therapy to achieve, EMDR achieves in a matter of a few sessions. Numerous studies show that it works more rapidly than cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)[

In one study, 100 percent of victims who suffered a single trauma and nearly 80 percent of those who had experienced multiple traumas no longer had PTSD following just six 50-minute sessions. In two other studies, close to 90% of single-trauma victims were free of PTSD after three 90-minute sessions.[

How does EMDR work?

During an EMDR session, your therapist will move his or her finger back and forth in front of you and have you track the movement with your eyes. Other methods include beeps played through a headset in each ear, or a device that vibrates from one hand to the other.

At the same time, the therapist will ask you to think about the traumatic event, as well as the feelings and bodily sensations that accompany it. Over the course of the session or several sessions, the therapist will guide you to replace these painful thoughts with more positive ones.

It’s not entirely clear how EMDR works in the brain. Proponents suggest it synchronizes the right and the left hemispheres, or that it mimics rapid eye movement (REM) sleep.

EMDR typically consists of 8 phases.[ These are:

  • History taking — During the first meeting/s, you’ll talk to your therapist about the trauma, and he or she will decide whether EMDR is the right treatment for you.
  • Preparation — Your therapist will brief you on what to expect during a typical EMDR session, and also go over stress management techniques to deal with any mental anguish that may arise between sessions.
  • Assessment — During this phase, your therapist figures out what memories will be targeted during the EMDR session, the negative beliefs that come up for you when thinking about the trauma, and the positive beliefs you’d rather have. For example, perhaps someone believes, “I am powerless,” following a car accident. The desired belief would be, “I am in control.”
  • Phases four to eight: treatment and evaluation — Your therapist will start using EMDR techniques.

What are the side effects?

It takes guts to go to therapy. Confronting trauma and uncovering distressing memories is hard work. During an EMDR session, powerful emotions may catch you off guard, and you might also feel physical sensations like tingling or sweating. These memories and feelings may bubble up outside of the therapy sessions. A good therapist will give you the tools to work through these painful emotions as they arise

by Alison Moodie

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