What Is EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) Therapy? Is It Right For Me?

By Kristi Garcia, LMSW, ACSW

EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) therapy is a psychotherapy that enables people to heal from the symptoms and emotional distress that are the result of disturbing life experiences.  Repeated studies show that by using EMDR therapy, people can experience the benefits of psychotherapy that once took years to make a difference. It is widely assumed that severe emotional pain requires a long time to heal.  EMDR therapy shows that the mind can in fact heal from psychological trauma much as the body recovers from physical trauma.  When you cut your hand, your body works to close the wound.  If a foreign object or repeated injury irritates the wound, it festers and causes pain.  Once the block is removed, healing resumes.  EMDR therapy demonstrates that a similar sequence of events occurs with mental processes.  The brain’s information processing system naturally moves toward mental health.  If the system is blocked by the impact of a disturbing event, the emotional wound festers and may cause intense suffering.  Once the block is removed, healing resumes.  Using the detailed protocols and procedures learned in EMDR therapy training sessions, therapists can help clients activate their natural healing processes.

How does it work?

EMDR therapy is an eight-phase treatment.  Sessions are typically 90 minutes in duration.  Eye movements (or other bilateral stimulation) are used during one part of the session.  After the therapist and client have determined which memory to target first, the client will be asked to hold different aspects of that event or thought in mind and to use their eyes (tones or pulses) to track the therapist’s hand or to follow a light bar as it moves back and forth across their field of vision.  As this happens, for reasons believed to be connected with the biological mechanisms involved in Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep, internal associations arise, and the client begins to process the memory and disturbing feelings. In successful EMDR therapy, the meaning of painful events is transformed on an emotional level.  For instance, a rape victim shifts from feeling horror and self-disgust to holding the firm belief that, “I survived it, and I am strong.”  Unlike talk therapy, the insights clients gain in EMDR therapy result not so much from clinician interpretation, but from the client’s own accelerated intellectual and emotional processes.  The net effect is that clients conclude EMDR therapy feeling empowered by the very experiences that once debased them.  Their wounds have not just closed, they have transformed.

Who and what issues are appropriate for EMDR?

Both children and adults are responsive to EMDR.  The following clinical issues have been successfully treated with EMDR Therapy:

  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
  • Anger/Negativity
  • Depression and Self-Esteem
  • School/Peer Humiliation
  • Academic/Employment Stress
  • Grief and Mourning
  • Phobias, Panic Disorder, Anxiety
  • Chronic Pain, Phantom Limb Pain
  • Body Dysmorphic Disorder
  • Attachment Disorders
  • Sexual Dysfunction
  • Marital/Partner Conflict, Family and Relationship Problems
  • Childhood history of harsh, critical, or restrictive parenting

Do you notice that what you think and what you feel are sometimes not connected?  For instance, do you notice that what you know logically or rationally does not match what with you are experiencing emotionally?  Example:  Why does a particular person or experience make me feel such an intense reaction that I believe is beyond what makes sense to me?

How long does treatment last?

The number of sessions depends upon the specific problem and client history. However, repeated controlled studies have shown that a single trauma can be processed within 3 sessions in 80-90% of the participants. While every disturbing event need not be processed, the amount of therapy will depend upon the complexity of the history.

How soon does EMDR Begin? 

This depends upon the client’s ability to “self-soothe” and use a variety of self-control techniques to decrease potential disturbance. The therapist will teach the client these techniques during the preparation phase. The amount of preparation needed will vary from client to client. In the majority of instances, the active processing of memories should begin after one or two sessions.

What happens after a session?

The effects of EMDR treatment do not stop immediately after a session.  EMDR generates a certain amount of momentum to thinking, emotions, and conscious awareness. A client may experience being slightly light-headed or tired.  These are quite normal responses and fade fairly quickly.

Next Steps

To determine if you are a good candidate for EMDR, you will need to complete a comprehensive assessment with an EMDR-trained therapist.  During this assessment phase, you and your therapist can collaborate to determine a treatment plan.  Please call our office to schedule this initial assessment and learn more about the process as well as further recommendations that best address your presenting issue(s).