What is EMDR Therapy and How Does it Work?
If you’re like most people, you probably think of therapy as a long, slow process. You might imagine lying on a couch and talking about your childhood for years on end.
But what if there was a type of therapy that could help you heal from trauma and anxiety in just a few sessions?
What is EMDR therapy and how does it work?
Keep reading to find out.
Table of Contents
What is EMDR therapy?
EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) is an interactive psychotherapeutic technique used to alleviate psychological stress. It is based on the idea that symptoms occur when trauma and other negative or challenging experiences overwhelm the brain’s natural ability to heal, and that the healing process can be facilitated and completed through bilateral stimulation while re-experiencing the trauma in the context of the safe environment.
The goal of EMDR therapy is to relieve the symptoms of trauma by changing the way that your brain stores memories. The EMDR 8 phase treatment consists of client preparation, assessment, desensitization, installation, body scan, closure, and reevaluation of treatment affect. This process takes place slowly and under controlled conditions, helping individuals process the trauma in a safe and guided setting.
What are the benefits of using EMDR therapy?
1. EMDR is an effective treatment for mental health conditions and phobias
EMDR therapy is known to be effective in treating a range of mental health conditions such as anxiety, panic attacks, depression, phobias, bipolar disorder, dissociative disorder, recovering from grief, eating disorders, pain management, personality disorders, stress, performance anxiety, sleep disturbances, substance use disorder or addiction, bipolar disorder, depression.
2. EMDR is a rapid and effective treatment for PTSD
EMDR therapy is a type of psychotherapy that uses a patient’s own rapid, rhythmic eye movements to help them process and lessen the power of emotions surrounding traumatic events. EMDR has become popular for treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Unlike traditional types of psychotherapy, EMDR does not rely on talk therapy or medications.
The benefits of EMDR therapy are numerous. It can reduce the intensity of traumatic memories, decrease negative emotions such as fear, guilt, and shame, reduce self-blame in the wake of a traumatic event, improve sleep, and enable the patient to better focus on tasks. In addition, EMDR can also decrease physical symptoms associated with anxiety, improve overall psychological functioning, and help the patient gain insight into their past and present experiences.
Self-directed EMDR, is a technique in which an individual administers EMDR to themselves without the close guidance of a certified EMDR therapist. It means you can do EMDR on yourself which in some cases is the only way to go for patients.
3. EMDR can reduce PTSD flashbacks
EMDR therapy has been tested and proven to be an effective treatment for reducing or eliminating disturbing memories and flashbacks associated with PTSD. The key component of EMDR is the systematic eye movements, which are guided by a therapist. This process is thought to help stimulate the brain’s natural information processing system, which helps the person reprocess the traumatic memories in a more positive and manageable way. EMDR therapy looks like to be effective even in Complex-PTSD.
The therapy also includes components of CBT and mindfulness, which can help to reduce the intensity of the traumatic memories, the associated negative thoughts, and the distressing emotions.
Overall, while the eye movements are an important part of EMDR, the other cognitive and mindfulness components are also essential in helping to reduce and eliminate the symptoms of PTSD.
4. EMDR is a safe and non-invasive therapy
What makes EMDR a safe and non-invasive therapy is that it does not require talking about the traumatic event in detail, which makes it suitable for both children and adults who may struggle with verbalizing their experiences.
EMDR therapy provides the patient with a safe space to process their feelings and experiences in a nonjudgmental and supportive environment. This supportive environment helps individuals work through their trauma and eventually move forward in their lives.
5. EMDR can be used in tandem with other treatments, such as medication and CBT
EMDR therapy can be used in tandem with other treatments, such as medication and CBT. EMDR is an effective, non-invasive therapy for trauma and mood disorders, and is proven to be as effective as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and at least as effective as medication, without the potential side effects of the latter.
Combining EMDR with other treatments can help to maximize the benefits and provide a comprehensive approach to mental health care.
6. EMDR can help you overcome the negative thoughts and emotions associated with your trauma
The goal of EMDR is to identify the emotions and memories associated with the trauma and then process these memories in a less painful way. This is done through a series of techniques, such as the Flashforward procedure, that involve the patient recalling their traumatic experiences while engaging in eye movements or other forms of bilateral stimulation.
The patient is also encouraged to use “resourcing”, which involves using positive self-talk and imagery to reduce the intensity of the traumatic memories. Through these techniques, the patient is able to gain insight into their emotions and then begin to let go of the cyclical pattern of thinking associated with the trauma. This allows the individual to gain a sense of control over the trauma and develop more positive self-beliefs.
7. EMDR can help you develop effective coping skills to deal with future stressors
EMDR has been shown to be highly effective in treating PTSD and trauma and also helps develop effective coping skills to deal with future stressors by teaching the patient stress reduction techniques such as mindful breathing exercises, self hugging, Butterfly Hug and other resourcing tools. Sleeping with a weighted blanket is also helpful for many patients.
8. EMDR can re-establish a balanced attention system and bring about lasting change.
EMDR helps re-establish a balanced attention system and bring about lasting change by targeting the root cause of the issue. Through a series of steps, EMDR helps people identify and understand the source of their distress.
9. EMDR and autism
There is some evidence to suggest that EMDR can be beneficial for some (and not all) autistic individuals, as each individual is unique and may respond differently to treatment.
Challenges in using EMDR with autistic individuals may be:
- EMDR involves sensory stimulation, such as eye movements or tapping, which may be overwhelming or uncomfortable for some individuals.
- Autistic individuals may have difficulty expressing their emotions or understanding them, which can make it challenging to effectively use EMDR.
Therefore, it may be necessary to use alternative approaches or modifications to the standard EMDR protocol.
Fisher, N., van Diest, C., Leoni, M., & Spain, D. (2023). Using EMDR with autistic individuals: A Delphi survey with EMDR therapists. Autism, 27(1), 43–53. https://doi.org/10.1177/13623613221080254
How does EMDR work?
EMDR therapy is a new and nontraditional form of talk therapy or psychotherapy that has been developed by trauma therapists to help the brain process and release memories of traumatic events. It uses an adaptive information processing model, allowing the therapist to help the patient reprocess the disturbing memories and move past them.
During EMDR therapy, the patient is asked to focus briefly on a specific traumatic memory and then perform bilateral stimulation, which is either their eyes moving rapidly from side to side, audio tones playing in the direction of both ears, or rhythmically tapping on both hands or on their chest.
The theories on how EMDR works include working memory theory, which suggests that the process of focusing on the trauma while rapidly moving the eyes forces the brain to split its resources and leads to a less intense recall of the traumatic event; physiological changes theory, which states that the bilateral stimulation leads to slower breathing and heart rate, leading to a more balanced regulation of the central nervous system; and the theories that EMDR replicates the rapid eye movement (REM) sleep phase and thalmo-cortical binding, as well as structural brain differences that may exist in people who respond well to EMDR therapy.
EMDR therapy often takes multiple sessions to see progress and is an effective way of helping the patient process their traumatic memories and move forward.
Who can benefit from EMDR therapy?
EMDR therapy may potentially have benefit for people with a history of trauma along with certain conditions like anxiety, panic attacks, phobias, depression, pain, PTSD, chronic illness, sleep disturbances, autism. EMDR therapy helps children and adults of all ages, and can be used to address a wide range of challenges.
How is EMDR therapy different from other therapies?
EMDR therapy is mostly used for treating PTSD or trauma responses, compared to other therapies such as cognitive behavioral therapy or medication which are more commonly used to treat mental health issues.
EMDR is preferred over regular talk therapy for its ability to directly address the memories and emotions associated with trauma without needing to speak about the trauma in-depth, and for its ability to work more quickly than other trauma-focused therapies. (That is my own experience as well! – Lez)
Unlike other therapies, EMDR is based on the adaptive information processing model, which suggests that traumatic memories can be “reprocessed” to help people move past them.
EMDR uses specific techniques such as bilateral stimulation, which encourages communication between the left and right sides of the brain, and rhythmic tapping on both of the hands or audio tones directed towards both ears depending on the individual’s visual processing issues.
Is EMDR therapy effective?
EMDR therapy is a proven effective treatment for trauma and PTSD symptoms, as recognized by several national and international organizations, such as the American Psychiatric Association, the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, and the World Health Organization.
Numerous research studies support its efficacy, including a meta-analysis which showed that EMDR was faster and more effective than other trauma treatments. It has also been found to be as effective as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and at least as effective as medication.
At the end of the day, no one can guarantee that EMDR will work for your particular situation, but if you’ve tried other traditional psychotherapy methods without success, it may be worth considering.
Yurtsever A, Konuk E, Akyüz T, Zat Z, Tükel F, Çetinkaya M, Savran C, Shapiro E. An Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) Group Intervention for Syrian Refugees With Post-traumatic Stress Symptoms: Results of a Randomized Controlled Trial. Front Psychol. 2018 Jun 12;9:493. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00493. PMID: 29946275; PMCID: PMC6005903.
How long does an EMDR therapy session last?
An EMDR therapy session typically lasts between 60 and 90 minutes. During the session, the therapist will move their fingers back and forth in front of the client’s face and ask them to follow the hand motions with their eyes.
The therapist will also have the client recall a disturbing event and the emotions and body sensations that go along with it. Gradually, the therapist will help the client shift their thoughts to more pleasant ones.
The number of sessions required to start seeing improvements in symptoms depends on the individual and their situation – it could be as few as three – four sessions or more.
How much does EMDR therapy cost?
The exact cost of EMDR therapy varies greatly depending on the type of insurance coverage you have and the experience of the therapist. In general, a single session of EMDR therapy typically ranges in price from $200 to $500, with many therapists offering packages of sessions at a discounted rate. The price may also vary depending on the city or state you live in.
However, when compared to other forms of therapy, such as talk therapy or cognitive-behavioral therapy, EMDR therapy is often more expensive.
At the same time, EMDR may be more cost-effective in the long run. Studies have shown that the effects of EMDR therapy may last longer than those of other forms of therapy, meaning that fewer sessions may be necessary. Additionally, EMDR may help you make more rapid progress in overcoming issues related to anxiety, depression, PTSD, and other mental health issues.
Are there any risks associated with EMDR therapy?
Yes, there are some risks associated with EMDR therapy. These include vivid and intense dreams, heightened sensitivity to physical sensations or emotions, lightheadedness, anxiety, headaches, and strong emotional fluctuations.
Additionally, some people may experience increased recall of traumatic or distressing memories and feelings of vulnerability. It is not rare to cry during a EMDR therapy but it is not a bad sign. It means you have emotions.
However, these side effects typically go away after a few sessions, and many people report overall improvement from their everyday symptoms soon, after just a few sessions. If any of these side effects arise during treatment, your therapist may recommend focus and relaxation methods or prescribe medications to help manage symptoms.
What qualifications should I look for when choosing an EMDR therapist?
When choosing an EMDR therapist be sure to ask questions about their training, such as which EMDR training course they completed and whether they have experience treating your specific condition, such as PTSD or panic disorder. You can also find EMDR-trained therapists by visiting the EMDR Institute or EMDR International Association.
Your therapist should be with you every step of the way and help you cope with any distressing feelings that come up.
How long does it take to see results from EMDR therapy?
The first session is a history-taking session where the therapist assesses the client’s readiness and develops a treatment plan. After this session, the client and therapist will identify possible targets for EMDR processing. As the sessions progress, the client will gain insight into their situation, the emotional distress will start to resolve, and they will begin to change their behaviors. Ultimately, EMDR therapy may take multiple sessions to see progress.
It typically takes 6 to 12 sessions of EMDR therapy spread out across several weeks to start seeing improvements in one’s symptoms. Some people have even reported seeing improvement in their symptoms after as few as 3 sessions.
Does insurance cover the cost of EMDR therapy?
Yes, insurance may cover the cost of EMDR therapy, depending on the provider and the coverage in your plan. Most major insurance providers cover some or all of the cost of EMDR, though you may need to pay a copay or coinsurance. Additionally, many providers offer sliding scale fees or payment plans, in case insurance doesn’t cover the full cost of your sessions.
How does EMDR therapy affect the brain?
EMDR therapy has been found to affect the brain in various ways. Research has demonstrated that during EMDR sessions, the brain is more active in areas such as the prefrontal cortex, the orbitofrontal cortex, and the anterior cingulate cortex. These areas are important for planning, organizing, focusing, impulse control, emotion regulation, and empathy. This activity in the brain has been thought to help process and release trauma, as well as associated emotions.
Other theories as to why EMDR works include that it replicates REM sleep, strengthens the interaction of the thalamus and cortex, and causes structural differences in the brain. Ultimately, however, the exact way in which EMDR therapy works is still not fully understood.
Can EMDR Be Harmful?
There is ample evidence to suggest that EMDR is a safe and effective treatment for trauma, with few possible side effects. However, it is important to consider the potential risks associated with the therapy, particularly since it involves the recall of traumatic memories and intense emotions. It is possible that, if not done correctly or with a qualified therapist, EMDR can make things worse.
It is important to make sure that you are in the right mindset and environment to begin EMDR as it can bring up old traumatic memories and feelings. If you are living in an unstable environment or actively using drugs, it may not be the best time to begin EMDR.
For these reasons, it is important to be aware of the potential risks associated with EMDR and to make sure that you are working with a qualified therapist who can guide you through the therapy properly.
What is the Butterfly Hug Technique?
The Butterfly Hug Technique is a resourcing technique used in EMDR therapy to help manage and cope with emotional stress. This technique involves the client crossing their arms across their chest, tucking their hands underneath the opposite armpits, and holding themselves. This physical gesture is used to create a sense of safety and comfort and can be used as a grounding exercise when feeling overwhelmed.