Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)
What is EMDR? EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) is a relatively new yet powerful technique that was developed to help people come to term with overwhelming or traumatic life experiences. It is a highly interactive therapeutic approach that has helped an estimated two million people of all ages relieve many types of psychological distress.
How does EMDR Work? No one knows exactly how any form of psychotherapy works neurologically or in the brain. However, we do know that when a person becomes very upset, the brain cannot process information as it does normally. An overwhelming moment can become “frozen in time,” and remembering a trauma may feel as bad as going through it the first time, with the same sounds, smells, sensations, thoughts, and feelings. Such memories have a lasting negative effect that interferes with the way a person sees the world and the way they relate to other people.
EMDR seems to have a direct effect on the way that the brain processes memories. Normal information processing is resumed, so following a successful EMDR session, a person no longer relives the experience and related feelings when the event is brought to mind. You will still remember what happened, but it has become less upsetting. The brain is finally able to process and integrate the event that had become frozen, and you are free to move forward in your life.
Is EMDR Effective? EMDR has a broad base of published case reports and controlled research which supports it as an empirically validated treatment for trauma. The US Department of Defense/Department of Veterans Affairs Practice Guidelines have placed EMDR in the highest category, recommended for all trauma populations at all times. In addition, the treatment guidelines for the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies designate EMDR as an effective treatment for PTSD, as have the Departments of Health of the United Kingdom, Israel, and many other international health and governmental agencies. Most recently, the American Psychiatric Association Practice Guideline (2004) has placed EMDR in the category of highest level of effectiveness.
What is EMDR Like? During EMDR, the therapist works with the client to identify a specific problem as the focus of the treatment session. The client calls to mind the disturbing issue or event – what was seen, felt, heard, thought, etc. – and what thoughts and beliefs are currently held about that event. The therapist facilitates the directional movement of the eyes or other dual attention stimulation of the brain, while the client focuses on the disturbing material and simply notices whatever comes to mind without making any effort to control direction or content. Each person will process information uniquely, based on personal experiences and values. Sets of eye movements are continued until the memory becomes less disturbing and eventually is associated with positive thoughts and beliefs about one’s self – for example, “I did the best I could.” During EMDR, the client may experience intense emotions, but by the end of the session, most people report a great reduction in the level of disturbance.
How Long Does EMDR take? One or more sessions is required for the therapist to understand the nature of the problem and to decide whether EMDR is an appropriate treatment. The therapist will also discuss EMDR more fully and provide an opportunity to answer questions about the method. Once the therapist and client have agreed that EMDR is appropriate for the problem, the actual EMDR therapy may begin. A typical EMDR session lasts from 60 to 90 minutes. The type of problem, severity, life circumstances, and the amount of previous trauma will determine how many treatment sessions are necessary. EMDR may be used within a standard “talking” therapy, as an adjunctive therapy with a separate therapist, or as a treatment all by itself. Most treatment can be completed within 3 – 6 sessions, with up to 12 sessions needed for multiple trauma victims.
Are there risks with EMDR? There are no documented cases of harmful effects of EMDR. Like any treatment, it can be misused. Clients should not try EMDR at home, nor should they receive EMDR from any therapist who has not received the proper level of training in the procedure. For some people, the eye movement procedure may cause mild eye discomfort or dizziness. If this happens, the therapist may use other techniques that alternately stimulate both sides of the brain, such as gently tapping on client’s hands or using binaural sounds. It is common for people to experience strong emotions during and after EMDR sessions, so it is important for the client to give the therapist accurate information about what is happening at these times. EMDR sessions should ideally be scheduled at times when the client will not be going into a highly demanding situation right after the session. In addition, it is important that the client not leave the therapist’s office until he/she feels grounded and calm. Sometimes the client will want to remain in the waiting room for a few minutes in order to make sure things feel settled before leaving. It is also common for emotional processing to continue between sessions, so, if upsetting feelings or images come to mind outside of the sessions, clients are asked to keep a log of the material and bring it to the next appointment. Therapists are also available by telephone if necessary. The client always has the ability to stop EMDR at any time, for any reason. There are also times when it may make sense for the therapist to put the procedure aside temporarily or permanently and continue therapy as usual.
Where Can I get EMDR? The Life Link, Inc., is proud to offer EMDR as a treatment modality for our clients. In addition to our other evidence-based practice, including Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Motivational Interviewing (MI), Community Reinforcement Approach (CRA), and Community Reinforcement Approach and Family Training (CRAFT), The Life Link provides EMDR to clients as an effective and beneficial intervention for trauma-based distress.