Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing Therapy

By | May 1, 2021 | |

EMDR therapy was first developed in 1987 by psychologist Francine Shapiro upon noticing that certain eye movements reduced the intensity of disturbing thought. This led to the development of a new type of psychotherapy known as EMDR, which stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing.

EMDR Therapy

EMDR therapy has become a more common treatment in recent years as a treatment option for people suffering from:

  • Anxiety
  • Panic
  • PTSD
  • Trauma
  • Depression

EMDR therapy is a phased and focused approach to treat trauma and other symptoms by reconnecting with the client in a safe and measured way.

EMDR helps the person associated with trauma, and allows the natural healing powers of the brain to move towards an adaptive resolution.

In EMDR therapy sessions, you relive traumatic or triggering experiences in brief doses while the therapist directs your eye movements. This allows you to be exposed to the memories or thoughts without having a strong psychological response. Over time this technique is believed to lessen the impact that the memories or thoughts have on you.

An EMDR Treatment Session Consists of Eight Essential Phases

Phase 1: History and Treatment Planning

The First phase of EMDR treatment includes an evaluation of client safety factors . This will determine client selection, including the client’s ability to withstand the potentially high levels of disturbance by the reprocessing.

Phase 2: Preparation

Your therapist will then help you learn several different ways to cope with the emotional or psychological stress you’re experiencing. Stress management techniques such as deep breathing and mindfulness may be used.

Phase 3: Assessment

During the third phase of EMDR treatment, your therapist will identify the components of target and all the associated components (such as the physical sensations that are stimulated when you concentrate on an event) for each target memory.

Phase 4-7: Treatment

In this desensitization phase, the client’s disturbing event is evaluated to change the trauma-related sensory experiences and associations.

Your therapist will then begin using EMDR therapy techniques to treat your targeted memories. During these sessions, you will be asked to focus on a negative thought, memory, or an image.

Your therapist will simultaneously have you do specific eye movements. The client is asked to attend both the target image and eye movement simultaneously and is instructed to have openness to whatever happens.

Phase 8: Evaluation

In the final phase, you’ll be asked to evaluate your progress after these sessions. Your therapist will also perform an evaluation from their end.

Benefits of EMDR

EMDR firstly provides relief when one re-experiences PTSD symptoms. Looking at long term changes, the benefits can be categorised into 3 aspects: transformed beliefs on trauma, recovery from trauma, and gaining more positive self-beliefs. 

Transformed Beliefs

EMDR helps with reorganising your thoughts, feelings and memories around the traumatic event, such that the trauma is no longer as closely tied in with the negative emotions, somatic sensations and anxiety formerly associated with it. 

Recovery from Trauma 

EMDR gives the client the opportunity to do away with circular patterns of thinking and worry which often come with traumatic memories. After going through the therapy, one is able to reprocess their traumatic memories. These memories would no longer be able to control their present day experiences.

New Positive Self-beliefs

EMDR helps to take away the power from negative beliefs, demonstrating that other more valid and positive interpretations of the event are available. It also fosters new belief systems which do away with the negative self-beliefs derived from traumatic events. Not only is there resolution of the traumatic memory, but there is also a positive change in perspective one has of themselves.

Effectiveness of EMDR

EMDR has long proven itself to be an effective treatment for trauma, and it is now being used as a method to help those suffering from anxiety and depression as well. Multiple studies have reported the success of EMDR in removing one’s main presenting problems.  Specifically, research has shown that EMDR as a treatment reduces the vividness and intensity of mental images significantly more than other comparable methods.

A recent meta-analysis which compared the traditional use of CBT vs EMDR in treating PTSD demonstrated that EMDR led to a greater reduction in PTSD and anxiety symptoms immediately post treatment. When looking at the severity of symptoms 3 months post treatment, the use of EMDR and CBT showed similar effects. Another study found that when compared to medication however, EMDR showed greater efficacy in reducing the severity of PTSD symptoms in adults as compared to eating fluoxetine. Therefore this has led to the increased popularity in using EMDR as a possible treatment method for those experiencing symptoms of trauma and anxiety.

Impacts of EMDR

Our memories are stored in our brains as a neural network. With each new behaviour we learn, a new network is created. Traumatic memories can be seen as a neural network with impaired encoding. These memories have limited ability in accommodating new information and integrating with other networks of positive memories. This leads to one’s difficulty in practicing emotional flexibility when thinking about traumatic events.   

What EMDR does is to help you get better access to positive resources by strengthening neural networks associated with positive emotions and cognitions. This would lead to increased tolerance for the subsequent processing of your trauma. Overall, EMDR would help facilitate communication between your left and right brain hemispheres, enhance the processing of information throughout the brain, and stimulate the orienting response (a reflex which draws your attention to new stimuli). This is especially helpful for integrating new information in a way that can change memories which are emotionally charged (i.e. traumatic memories).   

Guidelines for Therapy

EMDR is generally considered to be a safe form of therapy, with fewer adverse side effects than prescribed medication for trauma symptoms. 

That being said, EMDR may cause some side effects such as:

  • Heightened somatic sensations and emotions during therapy sessions
  • Light-headedness
  • Vivid, realistic dreams
  • Increase in distressing memories

The initial sessions may be highly triggering for those just starting to deal with their trauma, due to the increased awareness of thinking. These symptoms however usually get resolved over time as treatment progresses. Do let your therapist know about your experiences so that  you will know how to cope with them.

Post Written By: Incontact Counselling & Training.
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Frequently Asked Questions

Answer: We do not recommend using EMDR right away in the first few sessions. With EMDR therapy there is a process where the counsellor needs to understand the trauma/history and how resourced you are.  The number of sessions needed before you can start on EMDR also depends on stabilisation and the building of a therapeutic relationship.

Answer: There is a common misunderstanding that EMDR is a quick fix solution. EMDR is not just a tool, but rather a process consisting of phases. The time taken to progress from one phase to another is dependent on the individual’s history and current situation. Therefore, the number of sessions it takes for one to see significant effects is highly variable.

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