People affected by emotional problems like anxiety, depression, and trauma can have a difficult time trying to cope with life. For years, psychotherapy took years to treat trauma victims. But now, a new technique known as EMDR is showing promising results in treating emotional pain.

What is EMDR?

EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) is a psychotherapy technique developed to help treat people suffering from trauma, stress, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), among many other emotional issues. EMDR is proving to be an effective technique to bring lasting relief for people who have encountered disturbing life experiences.

When a person is distressed, the brain is usually blocked by disturbing events. When EMDR therapy sessions are employed, the client undergoes a series of phases to unblock the system, thereby encouraging the healing process.

How Does EMDR Work?

EMDR therapy involves taking the client through three time periods: the past, present, and future. The focus is drawn to the past to relive the painful memories and its related events. Focus is also given to the present situation to help the client develop skills and positive attitudes needed for positive future developments. During an EMDR therapy session, your therapist asks you to revisit the traumatic events and recall all feelings related to the memories.

The therapist then moves his/her fingers back and forth, like a ping pong or windshield wiper and requests you to follow the hand motions with your eyes. This helps to build an intense focus on the memories, thus making it easier to bring the memories to life. As the images and memories become more vivid and are processed by the brain through eye movements, the issues are resolved and in exchange, the feelings become more peaceful and loving.

The EMDR technique uses tactile stimulation, bilateral stimulation, or right/left eye movement, to repeatedly activate the opposite side of the brain to release the distress trapped in the nervous system. This way, the brain induces its natural healing power, helping the victim recover from disturbing events.

Treatment Phases

EMDR therapy session involves an eight-phase treatment approach:

  • Phase 1: History Taking and Treatment Planning In this phase, the therapist reviews your history and assesses your readiness in order to develop a suitable treatment plan. The process involves identifying possible targets for EMDR therapy. Other targets include past events. This helps your therapist to formulate a treatment plan based on your symptoms and behaviors that need modifying.
  • Phase 2: Preparation Your therapist helps you to learn how to handle emotional distress. Among other things, your therapist will teach you self-control skills to help you cope with the distressing memories that you are about to revisit.
  • Phases 3-6: Assessment and Treatment In phases three to six, your therapist identifies a target and uses EMDR techniques to process it. You’ll be required to identify: A) A vivid visual image linked to the memory. B) A negative belief about yourself. C) Physical sensations and accompanying memories You’ll also be required to identify a positive belief. Your therapist will guide you and help you rate the positive belief and the intensity of the negative belief. Next, your therapist will help you to focus on the specific memories while at the same time engaging EMDR therapy using bilateral stimulation. After the stimulation, your therapist asks you to allow your mind to go blank and notice whatever sensation, feeling, or thought that comes to mind. Depending on your report, the therapist will choose what to focus on next. If the events become too distressful or you have difficulties in your progress, your therapist follows the established guidelines to help you back on track.
  • Phase 7: Closure Your therapist will ask you to keep a record documenting any negative experiences that may arise during the week so that they can be addressed during the next session. Phase 8: Reevaluation This is the final phase and it involves reviewing the progress of the treatment so far.

Benefits of EMDR Treatment

EMDR is said to be particularly effective for those who struggle to talk about traumatic events of the past, such as people suffering from PTSD. Additionally, EMDR is said to be effective in helping people who have suffered from different stages of trauma. Although there is no sufficient evidence to support treating the conditions below, a section of researchers propose that EMDR can be used to treat:

  • Victims of a disaster, including a car accident, rape, robbery, sexual abuse, murder, assault.
  • Loss of a loved one
  • Trauma
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Physical abuse
  • Childhood trauma
  • Panic attacks
  • Phobias
  • Victims of violent crimes

Is EMDR Effective?

Generally, EMDR is a safe form of therapy with no known negative side effects. Its use has been on the increase over the years despite some practitioners debating on its effectiveness. There are concerns that the small number of participants involved in EMDR studies does not provide sufficient evidence. However, some studies have reported that 90% of PTSD survivors were successfully treated within three sessions. Other studies show that participants exhibited positive results after six to 12 sessions. EMDR treatment is also recommended by organizations like WHO, the Department of Veteran Affairs and the APA as an alternative treatment for PTSD. A 2014 research that investigated 24 randomized trials that supported EMDR techniques concluded that EMDR was more effective in the treatment of trauma compared to CBT for trauma. Another small study also showed that the chances of patients experiencing relapses were minimal with EMDR treatment.

All images by Shutterstock


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