All You Need to Know About EMDR Therapy

June 12, 2024

You may have heard of Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy in passing, but what is EMDR therapy, and what does it accomplish? In this article, we will explore what EMDR therapy is, who can benefit from it, and what to expect during a session. Whether you're a therapist or someone seeking treatment, this guide will provide you with valuable insights into the effectiveness and process of EMDR therapy.

What Is EMDR Therapy?

EMDR therapy is a structured and evidence-based treatment method for individuals who have experienced traumatic events or distressing life experiences. Mountainside Clinician Jillian Zeitler adds, “EMDR is also helpful for addressing deeply held negative cognitions, distressing physiological experiences, or strong emotions that are recurring concerns for an individual.”

EMDR was developed by psychologist Dr. Francine Shapiro in the late 1980s and has since gained recognition and approval from various mental health organizations worldwide.

The primary goal of EMDR therapy is to help individuals process and heal from the emotional and psychological effects of distressing experiences. Dr. Rebecca Hoffenberg Psy.D at NY Health Hypnosis and Integrative Therapy works with clients who are struggling with emotional neglect. “I watch clients make connections between their past and what’s happening now and feel empowered,” says Dr. Hoffenberg. “It’s amazing to be apart of that transformation and see them reframe their thoughts in real-time.”  

Unlike traditional talk therapy, EMDR focuses on the connection between distressing memories and the physical sensations, emotions, and thoughts associated with them. EMDR involves a specific technique called bilateral stimulation, which can include eye movements, auditory tones, or physical tapping. By engaging in bilateral stimulation while recalling traumatic memories, individuals can reprocess these experiences in a safe and controlled environment.

Who Can Benefit from EMDR Therapy?

EMDR therapy has shown effectiveness in treating a wide range of mental health conditions, particularly those related to trauma. Some of the conditions that can benefit from therapy include those with

  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Anxiety disorders (such as generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and phobias)
  • Depression disorders (including major depressive disorder and persistent depressive disorder)
  • Dissociative disorders (such as dissociative identity disorder and depersonalization disorder)
  • Eating disorders (including anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge-eating disorder)
  • Personality disorders (such as borderline personality disorder and avoidant personality disorder)
  • Trauma disorders (including acute stress disorder and adjustment disorder)
  • Other distressing life experiences

EMDR therapy is suitable for adolescents, teenagers, and adults of all ages. It can also be adapted for children with specialized EMDR therapists.

Preparing for Your EMDR Session

Before attending an EMDR session, it's essential to find a qualified and licensed therapist formally trained in EMDR consulting. Check their credentials, experience, and ensure they have received proper training in EMDR therapy. Additionally, consider scheduling an initial consultation to discuss your specific needs and goals for therapy.

During your first session, your therapist will gather information about your personal history, traumatic experiences, and any mental health symptoms you may be experiencing. This information will help them determine if EMDR therapy is the right approach for you.

It's crucial to establish a safe and trusting therapeutic relationship with your EMDR therapist. This will create a supportive environment for the challenging work that lies ahead. Take the time to communicate your concerns, questions, and expectations for therapy.

What Happens During an EMDR Session?

EMDR therapy consists of eight phases, which are tailored to each individual's unique needs and treatment goals. Let's explore what happens during each phase:

Phase 1: History Taking

During the first phase, your therapist will gather information about your personal history, trauma experiences, and current symptoms. This information helps in developing a comprehensive treatment plan for your EMDR therapy.

Phase 2: Preparation

In this phase, your therapist will educate you about EMDR and what to expect during the sessions. They will explain the rationale behind bilateral stimulation (explained below), and teach you relaxation and grounding techniques to ensure you can manage any distress that may arise during the process.

Phase 3: Assessment

During the assessment phase, your therapist will help you identify the specific traumatic memories or distressing life experiences that you would like to target during EMDR therapy. You will also explore the negative beliefs and emotions associated with these memories and establish positive beliefs to replace them.

Phase 4: Desensitization

The desensitization phase is where the actual reprocessing of traumatic memories takes place. You will focus on one specific memory while simultaneously engaging in bilateral stimulation, which can involve eye movements, auditory tones, or physical tapping. As you recall the memory, your therapist will guide you through the process, helping you notice any shifts in emotions, physical sensations, or insights that arise.

Phase 5: Installation

During the installation phase, your therapist will guide you in strengthening positive beliefs and self-statements that counteract the negative beliefs associated with the traumatic memory. This process reinforces the healing and reprocessing of the memory.

“For clients struggling with emotional neglect and being kind to themselves, I will often encourage them to consider how they would respond to a loved one,” says Dr. Hoffenberg. “I support them in giving themselves what they might not have received growing up.”

Phase 6: Body Scan

The body scan phase involves checking in with your body and noticing any remaining tension or discomfort. Your EMDR therapist will guide you through a process of releasing any residual physical sensations related to the targeted memory.

Phase 7: Closure

Closure is an essential phase that allows you to stabilize emotionally after each EMDR session. Your therapist will help you develop self-soothing and grounding strategies that you can use outside of therapy.

Phase 8: Reevaluation

In the reevaluation phase, you and your EMDR therapist will review the progress made in previous sessions. You will assess whether the targeted memory is causing less distress and determine if any additional memories need to be addressed.

It's important to note that the number of sessions required may vary depending on the complexity of the experience and individual progress. Some individuals may find relief in just a few sessions, while others may require more extensive treatment.

The Experience of Bilateral Stimulation

Central to the EMDR therapy process is bilateral stimulation. This technique involves engaging in rhythmic and repetitive movements or sensory experiences. Let's explore the potential experiences during bilateral stimulation:

  • Emotions and sensations: As you engage in the process, you may experience shifts in emotions and physical sensations. Some individuals report feeling a release of emotional intensity or a reduction in distressing feelings associated with the targeted memory.
  • Vivid memories: Bilateral stimulation can sometimes evoke vivid memories related to the traumatic event. These memories may feel more accessible but less distressing, allowing for an opportunity to reprocess and heal.
  • Physical sensations: It's not uncommon to experience physical sensations during this technique. These sensations can range from tingling or warmth to a sense of relaxation or grounding.
  • Insights and shifts in perspective: As the reprocessing takes place, you may gain new insights or a different perspective on the traumatic event. This can lead to a greater understanding of the experience and a sense of resolution.

It's essential to remember that everyone's experience during EMDR therapy is unique. Some individuals may have profound and transformative experiences, while others may have more subtle shifts. The process is tailored to your specific needs and goals, ensuring a personalized approach to healing.

EMDR and Addiction Treatment

Throughout Zeitler’s experience in addiction treatment, she has encountered clients who are eager to start EMDR therapy right away.  However, some individuals may be at a point in their life where diving into difficult life experiences, looking at intrusive thoughts, and exploring symptoms of anxiety or depression can intensify their emotions.  

“If you are already struggling to stand on your feet, and you increase distress level of different memories, this can potentially impact your level of stability,” says Zeitler. “We need to help people feel like the ground is underneath them first. Do you have a structure for support and recovery? A period of sustained sobriety?”

The goal of EMDR for people struggling with substance use disorder and other conditions is to start from bottom up. This means looking at your past experiences, the effects on your present self, and how you can resource tools to move forward in the future. Another way you can look at it carrying all your positive memories to the present and visualize how we can carry it into the future.  

What Happens After the EMDR Session?

After an EMDR session, it's common to experience a range of emotions and physical sensations. Your provider can help you with containment and calming down. They should also provide support resources for in between like Mountainside’s crisis intervention team, support groups, or having a talk therapy session once a week.  

“Remember that after an EMDR session, you just thought about a lot of things. It’s ok if you want to take a nap or need alone time,” says Zeitler. “You might even need a break from work the next day.” Take time to practice self-care activities and grounding techniques to support your wellbeing. “I also try to help my clients use containment techniques to put away thoughts that aren’t helpful,” says Dr. Hoffenberg. “I ensure they access supports whether that be through the therapeutic relationship, or connecting with some other positive resource.”  

As you progress through EMDR therapy, you may notice a reduction in the distress associated with the targeted memories. This can lead to improved daily functioning, decreased symptoms of anxiety and depression, and an overall sense of empowerment and resilience.

Misconceptions about EMDR

Dr. Hoffenberg dives into some of the common assumptions and misconceptions that she hears while practicing EMDR.

  1. Some people who aren’t as familiar with this therapy technique may believe EMDR is only for clients who are struggling with severe trauma or PTSD. However, EMDR can be beneficial for a wide range of conditions from eating disorders to mending romantic relationships.
  1. Individuals may see EMDR as a supplemental therapy technique when in fact it is a comprehensive therapy. The different phases are structured in a way that helps you process past trauma, look at current triggers and identify future stressors.  
  1. Some people have interpreted the popular book, "The Body Keeps the Score," as de-emphasizing the importance of the therapeutic relationship. But in my experience, developing a collaborative, healthy relationship between the client and provider is necessary for long-lasting change.  

Final Thoughts

It's worth noting that EMDR therapy is just one approach to trauma treatment, and results may vary for each individual. Maintain open communication with your therapist and address any concerns or questions that arise during the therapeutic process.

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing therapy offers a highly effective and evidence-based treatment option for individuals who have experienced trauma or distressing life experiences. By engaging in bilateral stimulation and reprocessing traumatic memories, individuals can achieve healing, resilience, and a renewed sense of wellbeing. If you or someone you know is struggling with the effects of trauma, consider exploring EMDR trauma therapy as a pathway to recovery and growth.

Our trauma experts
June 12, 2024