Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy

What Is Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) Therapy?

EMDR is a unique, nontraditional form of psychotherapy designed to diminish negative feelings associated with memories of traumatic events. Unlike most forms of talk therapy, EMDR focuses less on the traumatic event itself and more on the disturbing emotions and symptoms that result from the event. Treatment includes a hand motion technique used by the therapist to guide the client’s eye movements from side to side, similar to watching a pendulum swing. EMDR is a controversial intervention, because it is unclear exactly how it works, with some psychologists claiming it does not work. Some studies have shown, however, that EMDR is effective for treating certain mental-health conditions.

When It's Used

EMDR was originally developed to treat the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, and phobias. Some therapists also use EMDR to treat depression, eating disorders, schizophrenia, sexual dysfunction, and stress caused by chronic disease.

What to Expect

In the early stages of therapy, you will discuss your problems and symptoms with your therapist, but you won’t necessarily have to reveal all the details of your traumatic experience(s). Instead, your therapist will help you focus on related negative thoughts and feelings that you are still experiencing, and decide which of these beliefs are still relevant and which ones you would like to replace with positive thoughts and beliefs. You will learn techniques to help you deal with disturbing feelings. Your therapist will then guide you through a process known as desensitization. While keeping the memory of a painful or traumatic event in mind, you will follow the therapist’s back-and-forth finger movements with your eyes. The purpose of this technique is to help you fully process your negative feelings and begin to recognize that you no longer need to hold on to some of them. Future sessions are devoted to reinforcing and strengthening positive feelings and beliefs until you get to a point where you can bring up memories of the traumatic event without experiencing the negativity that brought you to therapy in the first place.

How It Works

The goal of EMDR is to fully process past experiences and sort out the emotions attached to those experiences. Negative thoughts and feelings that are no longer useful are replaced with positive thoughts and feelings that will encourage healthier behavior and social interactions. Ultimately, clients learn to handle stressful situations themselves. EMDR therapy occurs in eight phases:

1) History and treatment planning

2) Preparation, to establish trust and explain the treatment in-depth

3) Assessment, to establish negative feelings and identify positive replacements

4) Desensitization, which includes the eye movement technique

5) Installation, to strengthen positive replacements

6) Body scan, to see if the client is now able to bring up memories of trauma without experiencing negative feelings that are no longer relevant, or if reprocessing is necessary

7) Closure, which occurs at the end of every session

8) Re-evaluation, which occurs at the beginning of every session

What to Look for in an EMDR Therapist

Look for a licensed, experienced therapist, social worker, professional counselor or other mental-health professional with additional training and certification in EMDR. The EMDR International Association is one source of credentialing. In addition, it is important to find a therapist with whom you feel comfortable working.

Sources

EMDR International Association. Accessed Feb 8, 2017.

Shapiro F. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Mental Research Institute

Arkowitz H and Lilienfeld SO. EMDR: Taking a Closer Look. Scientific American. August 1, 2012.