Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) Therapy:

Provided by Heather Huffman, LCSW, Claudia Muro, MA, LPC, and Ellie Adelman, MSW

“This therapy (EMDR) is based on the idea that negative thoughts, feelings and behaviours are the result of unprocessed memories. The treatment involves standardized procedures that include focusing simultaneously on (a) spontaneous associations of traumatic images, thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations and (b) bilateral stimulation that is most commonly in the form of repeated eye movements.

”Like CBT with a trauma focus, EMDR aims to reduce subjective distress and strengthen adaptive beliefs related to the traumatic event. Unlike CBT with a trauma focus, EMDR does not involve (a) detailed descriptions of the event, (b) direct challenging of beliefs, (c) extended exposure, or (d) homework.”
— World Health Organization (2013). Guidelines for the management of conditions that are specifically related to stress.

What is emdr therapy?

EMDR is a physiologically based therapy that helps a person see disturbing material in a new and less disturbing way.  It is a highly researched treatment that has been shown to reduce symptoms associated with PTSD and is most researched in its effectiveness with issues related to trauma.  It has been demonstrated to be effective with a number off issues including trauma, anxiety, panic, phobias, depression, performance anxiety, complicated grief, chronic pain and substance abuse.

how does EMDR therapy work?

EMDR brings on the brain's innate ability to heal from difficult and/or traumatic life experiences.  Sometimes we have situations that feel "stuck" and that no matter how much we talk about them or try to cope, they are a constant struggle.  With the use of bilateral stimulation, EMDR therapy can help the brain process through these "stuck" places and allow us to feel less reactive to them.

Although research is still working to pinpoint the exact ways in which EMDR therapy works, there is belief that it works similarly to REM sleep.  During REM sleep, your brain is able to process through your day, leaving you feeling fresh and ready to start a new day when you awake.  Some things however are too difficult or overwhelming to just sleep off.  EMDR therapy is believed to stimulate this similar process while you are awake and conscious, and specifically focusing on whatever that "stuck" stuff is.

what are emdr sessions like?

Unlike traditional psychotherapy, EMDR therapy involves significantly less talking and the therapist writes on a protocol sheet.  The client calls to mind the disturbing issue or event, its details, and what thoughts and beliefs are currently held about the event.  The therapist facilitates bilateral stimulation of the eyes or other dual attention stimulation of the brain (tapping, sounds), while the client focuses on the disturbing material.  The client just notices whatever comes to mind without making any control to direct direction or content.  Sets of bilateral stimulation continue until the memory becomes less disturbing and is associated with positive beliefs about oneself.

what are the benefits of emdr therapy?

EMDR has been shown to have a number of benefits.  Some of these include:

  • The reduction or elimination of flashbacks, nightmares, or other intrusive symptoms

  • A sense that the past is truly over

  • Reduced reactivity to triggers or memories

  • Reduced anxiety and/or depression

  • A reduction or elimination of symptoms of PTSD

  • Overall emotional wellbeing and happiness in life

how long does EMDR therapy take?

Several sessions are required for the therapist and client to build rapport and trust, understand the nature of the problem, and to decide whether EMDR is an appropriate treatment.  One or more sessions will then be required for preparation to assure readiness to begin treatment.  A typical session lasts from 60-90 minutes.  The type of problem, life circumstances, and amount of trauma will determine how many sessions are necessary.  General life stability and a good support system are necessary prior to beginning the protocol phases (ex: safe and consistent living situation, basic needs are met, ability to regulate emotions).

what are some possible side effects of emdr therapy?

As with all therapeutic techniques, there is the possibility to experience side effects.  These possible side effects are similar to those you may experience in other forms of therapy, and may include:

  • Feeling foggy or spacey after the session

  • Having strong emotional reactions while processing in session

  • Nightmares or vivid dreams

  • Recalling memories that you did not before

  • Strong physical sensations

  • Increased emotional sensitivity, especially around things that are related to what you are processing

  • Dissociation