Understanding EMDR Therapy and Its Powerful Healing Potential
Updated on:November 22, 2023
Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy is one of the leading clinical techniques for the treatment of trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It is also greatly effective in treating substance use disorders and other mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Below, we’ll explore what EMDR is and how it works, along with the conditions it’s best for treating.
What Is EMDR?EMDR therapy is a highly structured therapy that involves having the patient focus briefly on a memory, especially a traumatic memory, while engaging in bilateral stimulation (typically, side-to-side eye movements). Dr. Francine Shapiro developed EMDR in 1987, using components of traditional exposure therapy, along with new technologies and ideas. EMDR is still somewhat controversial in the psychiatric field, but scientific studies around the world have repeatedly confirmed its effectiveness. EMDR is highly recommended for the treatment of PTSD by many governmental and medical organizations, including the World Health Organization (WHO) and American Psychological Association (provisionally). “EMDR can quickly reduce trauma symptoms without you having to talk a lot about the details,” says psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner (PMHNP) Valerie Puffenberger. “The use of eye movements brings up bad memories in small, manageable doses and activates the brain's natural healing system to process the trauma. Clients feel empowered and gain mastery over memories and triggers, facilitating transformational neuroplastic change at both neurological and psychological levels.”
What Conditions Does EMDR Treat?EMDR was primarily developed to help treat trauma and PTSD, and much of the official recognition of EMDR’s effectiveness is for the treatment of PTSD. Studies have found that:
- 90% of PTSD (not including complex PTSD, or C-PTSD) patients no longer have PTSD after three 90-minute EMDR sessions.
- 100% of PTSD (not including C-PTSD) and 77% of C-PTSD patients no longer have PTSD after six 90-minute sessions.
- 77% of combat veterans were free of PTSD after 12 sessions.
- Anxiety disorders, including general anxiety disorder, panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, and specific phobias
- Complex trauma and C-PTSD
- Dissociative disorders, including dissociative identity disorder (DID) and depersonalization/derealization disorder
- Grief and loss
- Performance anxiety
- Substance use disorders (substance addictions) and behavioral addictions
- Self-esteem and self-image issues
How Does EMDR Work?EMDR therapy works by accelerating the brain’s natural emotional healing process, which might take much longer or never finish otherwise. In the rapid eye movement portion of EMDR, the patient focuses on a traumatic memory and identifies beliefs they hold about themselves related to that memory. The patient then identifies a positive belief they would like to hold about themselves instead. The patient then goes over the memory with the therapist while the therapist creates a stimulus for bilateral (side-to-side) eye movement. Typically, the therapist will have the patient watch their finger or some other object as it moves side to side. This bilateral stimulation allows the patient to process the memory using both sides of the brain. Eventually, the positive belief replaces the negative one. It is thought that bilateral stimulation bypasses the part of the brain that has become stuck due to trauma, allowing the left side of the brain to soothe the right side. “On a biological level, the rapid left-right eye movements in EMDR seem to stimulate an innate information processing system in the brain that has become ‘locked’ by trauma,” says Puffenberger. “The bilateral aspect allows traumatized memory networks to reconnect and flow adaptively again.” On a psychological level, EMDR seems to activate the same rapid eye movement (REM)-like mechanisms we naturally use in processing dreams. This allows the brain to integrate traumatic memories so they no longer hijack the person's psyche and behaviors. It facilitates neuroplastic change through new associative links. In summary, EMDR directly accesses the brain's regenerative capabilities in a way that efficiently resolves trauma at its root neurological and psychological levels.
The EMDR Therapy Process
Phase 1: History Taking and Treatment PlanningThe therapist and the patient discuss the issues that the patient is having and how EMDR can help them. The therapist and the patient then work together to develop a secure working relationship and create a treatment plan. The therapist also evaluates the patient’s resources and ability to successfully undergo EMDR.
Phase 2: PreparationThe therapist explains what the EMDR process entails and sets reasonable expectations. The therapist addresses any concerns the patient has. The patient and therapist work together to discover techniques they can use to help the patient cope with any emotional disturbances that may occur as a result of EMDR therapy.
Phase 3: AssessmentThe event or memory that will be the focus of EMDR therapy is identified, along with any images, beliefs, feelings, and sensations about the event. The patient’s baseline measures are recorded by using the Validity of Cognition (VOC) and Subjective Units of Disturbance (SUD) scales.
Phase 4: DesensitizationDuring desensitization, the first of the reprocessing phases, the patient focuses on the traumatic memory while the therapist bilaterally stimulates them with side-to-side motions, sounds, or taps. This continues until the patient’s SUD reaches 0 (ideally) or 1 (when appropriate). It is common for new thoughts, sensations, images, and feelings to appear during the desensitization phase.
Phase 5: InstallationThe second of the reprocessing phases, installation begins after desensitization is complete. The therapist has the patient focus on a positive belief and works to strengthen that belief until the patient feels it is completely true.
Phase 6: Body ScanDuring body scan, the third and final reprocessing phase, the patient focuses on the target memory and the positive belief while scanning the entire body from head to toe. This reprocesses any lingering disturbance.
Phase 7: ClosureThe therapist helps the patient return to a calm state of mind where they are focusing on the present moment. Reprocessing of an event is considered complete when their SUD reaches 0 (neutral feeling about the memory) and their VOC reaches 7 (they completely believe the desired positive belief). Every EMDR session ends with this phase.
Phase 8: ReevaluationEvery new session of EMDR begins with reevaluation. The therapist ensures that the patient’s distress levels are still low and that the positive belief is still strong. Future goals are determined, and treatment plans are adjusted.
EMDR Therapy for Addiction TreatmentAddiction treatment professionals commonly use EMDR therapy in rehab settings. EMDR is not considered a stand-alone treatment for addiction but rather a complementary tool that helps patients whose addictions are partially the result of traumatic memories, PTSD, or other mental health conditions. Sufferers of all mental health conditions are more likely to suffer from substance use disorders, and this is particularly true of PTSD sufferers: Around 40% of PTSD sufferers also suffer from a diagnosable substance use disorder. Fortunately, EMDR is so effective at treating PTSD, trauma, and other conditions that it also treats the underlying cause of many addictions and eliminates potential triggers for relapse. EMDR also helps patients cope with relapse triggers in a new, healthier way by desensitizing emotional responses to triggers, therefore making them less powerful. EMDR also replaces negative self-beliefs with positive ones, giving the patient greater strength and ability to resist a trigger.
Pros and Cons of EMDR TherapyAs is the case with every psychiatric technique, there are pros and cons to EMDR therapy.
Pros of EMDR Therapy
- Proven effectiveness in treating trauma
- Rapid results that are achieved much faster than many other approaches
- Minimal exposure to recounting trauma
- Less reliance on verbal communication than many other approaches
- Suitable to varying types of trauma, including both single-event and complex trauma
- Helps patients process and integrate traumatic memories
- Reduces the emotional impact of traumatic memories
Cons of EMDR Therapy
- Not equally effective for all patients or all conditions
- Limited research on EMDR’s effectiveness for non-trauma and PTSD conditions
- Requires specialized training and certification
- Finding an EMDR therapist may be challenging in some areas
- Potential for the creation of false memories
- Can be costly and is not covered by all insurance plans
- May cause side effects such as fatigue, vivid dreams, or temporary distress
- Some controversy still exists in the mental health field regarding the effectiveness of EMDR
See If EMDR Therapy Is the Right Fit for YouIf you or a loved one is struggling with PTSD, traumatic memories, or other mental health conditions, it may seem as if there is no hope. This is especially true when the issue has been long-lasting and/or resistant to treatment. However, there is hope — a tremendous amount of it. EMDR therapy and other clinical and medical interventions can dramatically improve your quality of life and, in some cases, may even be able to cure PTSD. Legacy Healing Center uses EMDR as part of a three-pronged approach that focuses on healing the mind, body, and spirit. By addressing the trauma that brings you emotional distress, we believe we can lay the foundation for a lasting sense of well-being. Call 888-534-2295 today to speak with a staff member at Legacy Healing Center to find out more about EMDR and other treatment options.
EMDR Therapy FAQ
What is EMDR therapy, and how does it work?EMDR therapy is a type of clinical therapy used to treat PTSD, traumatic memories, and other mental health conditions. It involves having the patient focus on memories while they are bilaterally stimulated with side-to-side eye movements or sounds. It is believed that EMDR works by bypassing the brain area blocked by trauma, allowing it to heal itself.
Who can benefit from EMDR therapy?EMDR therapy can benefit most (but not all) individuals who suffer from PTSD or traumatic memories, especially those whose condition has proven resistant to other forms of treatment. EMDR has proven beneficial to combat veterans who suffer from PTSD and C-PTSD sufferers. EMDR can also provide significant benefits to individuals who suffer from a wide range of other mental health conditions, including substance use disorders, anxiety, and depression. However, EMDR therapy is only widely accepted as a treatment for these conditions if they somehow involve trauma — for example, substance use disorder or anxiety that is either caused or triggered by traumatic memories.
What conditions and problems does EMDR therapy treat?EMDR may be able to help treat:
- Anxiety disorders
- Behavioral addictions
- Complex trauma
- Depersonalization/derealization disorder
- Dissociative disorders
- Dissociative identity disorder
- General anxiety disorder
- Low self-esteem
- Panic disorder
- Performance anxiety
- Self-image issues
- Social anxiety disorder
- Substance use disorders
- Specific phobias
- Traumatic memories
- Substance use disorders
Is EMDR therapy effective for trauma and distressing life experiences?EMDR therapy is incredibly effective at treating trauma and distressing life experiences. Some studies have found that EMDR therapy is able to eliminate PTSD symptoms in 90 to 100% of patients in three to six 90-minute sessions. EMDR’s effectiveness has been endorsed by the World Health Organization, American Psychiatric Association, and many other governmental, nonprofit, and professional organizations.
Can EMDR therapy be done without a trained therapist?EMDR therapy cannot be done without a trained therapist. EMDR is a highly specialized and structured therapy that requires highly specialized and structured training. In fact, therapists must receive a special certification to practice EMDR. One of the major reasons this training is required is to avoid the creation of false memories, causing excessive distress to patients, worsening of trauma, and other potential complications.
- National Library of Medicine. (2014). The Role of Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) Therapy in Medicine: Addressing the Psychological and Physical Symptoms Stemming from Adverse Life Experiences.
- PTSD UK. (n.d.). How Effective Is EMDR?
- PTSD UK. (n.d.) How Does EMDR Work?
- National Library of Medicine. (2010). Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing: A Conceptual Framework.
- EMDR International Association. (2021). The Eight Phases of EMDR Therapy.
- National Library of Medicine. (2016). Concurrent Treatment of Substance Use and PTSD.