Coping With Mental Health: Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) Therapy

Last updated: August 2021

Some people who have experienced a shocking, dangerous, or frightening event may develop a disorder known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The symptoms of PTSD – including re-experiencing the traumatic event, avoiding similar situations, anxiety, and depressed mood – can negatively interfere with day-to-day life.

There are several treatment options for PTSD, including psychotherapy or “talk” therapy and prescription drugs. Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy is another treatment option that has shown to be effective in treating PTSD.1,2

What is EMDR?

During EMDR sessions, the patient is told to briefly focus on the memory of the traumatic experience that caused their PTSD. While focusing on the memory, they experience bilateral stimulation through instructed eye movements – think “Follow my finger from right to left,” as you might do in an eye doctor’s office. This is thought to reduce the intensity of the memory and its associated emotions.3

EMDR is typically a short-term therapeutic solution (spanning roughly 6 to 12 sessions), with sessions taking place once or twice a week.3

How is EMDR used to treat PTSD?

There are generally 8 phases of EMDR therapy:3

  1. History taking – The therapist will want to gather all information about your experience and your symptoms to better identify targets or triggers for symptoms
  2. Patient preparation – You will be introduced to EMDR therapy, and the therapist will explain the process, such as practicing certain eye movements, revisiting traumatic memories, and calming strategies
  3. Assessment – Through image recall, cognition, and body sensation, the therapist will work to identify and activate the specific traumatic memory contributing to the disorder
  4. Desensitization – Using eye movements while focusing on the memory, this process continues until the memory is no longer contributing to PTSD symptoms
  5. Installation – This strengthens the shift of focus to positive or neutral reactions to the memory
  6. Body scan – You are asked to observe your body’s physical response to thinking about the traumatic memory
  7. Closure – The session is ended, and next steps are taken for following sessions or whether to end therapy
  8. Reevaluation – Review of previous session(s) and adjusting the treatment plan as needed

How does EMDR work?

Though the exact reason behind the effectiveness of EMDR is unknown, the theory behind it is that PTSD and other similar disorders occur because a person’s memory did not properly process the traumatic event. Advocates for EDMR think that these unprocessed memories cause the negative emotions, thoughts, and physical reactions that occurred at the time of the traumatic event.3

When these memories are triggered, the person with PTSD then relives those emotions, thoughts, and physical reactions. Unlike other types of psychotherapy for PTSD, EMDR focuses directly on changing those emotions, thoughts, and physical reactions. The goal of EMDR is to change the way these traumatic memories are stored in the brain, which then leads to the PTSD symptoms going away.3

Benefits and risk

The use of EMDR to treat PTSD has increased in recent years. Though there are many studies that support its use, it is still somewhat controversial. One main benefit to EMDR is the fact that it has been used and proven successful for many people with PTSD. As many as 90 percent of people treated with EMDR appeared to have no PTSD symptoms after EMDR therapy. In fact, it is been shown to be so effective that some doctors are trying EMDR to treat other disorders, such as bipolar disorder, depression, or obsessive-compulsive disorder.2,4

Though it does not seem to carry any immediate risk other than the emotional or physical discomfort of revisiting a traumatic experience, the therapy is still controversial. The biggest issue that has come into question is not understanding the role of eye movement and its relationship to changing a person's response to memory. The fact that the therapy requires the person to actively do 2 things at once – reliving and discussing a traumatic memory while following directions to perform physical eye movements – has also been called into question.2,4

Key takeaways about EMDR

EMDR has been used by therapists to effectively treat PTSD for more than 25 years. Studies show it is a safe and effective method to reduce the symptoms of PTSD. If you or someone you care about is suffering from PTSD and is interested in learning more about EMDR, talk to your doctor or therapist.4

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