Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) Therapy
Last Updated: November 13, 2023
Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy is a trauma treatment modality. It is one of several effective options for treating symptoms of trauma. If you or a loved one has a trauma history, you might benefit from EMDR treatment.
Article at a Glance
- EMDR is a trauma treatment modality discovered in 1987.
- EMDR therapists use bilateral stimulation to help clients reprocess traumatic memories so they are less distressing.
- Experts believe that EMDR helps patients to move memories of trauma from primitive brain regions to higher-level regions that can process the memories adequately.
- It was originally developed for treating trauma, but EMDR is now used for the treatment of other conditions, including depression, anxiety, and psychosis.
- Studies have concluded that EMDR is effective for treating trauma, and in some cases, it may be superior to treatments like CBT or antidepressant medication.
What Is EMDR?
EMDR is a therapeutic modality developed for the treatment of trauma. The belief behind EMDR is that people with PTSD and related diagnoses experience distress because they have not fully processed traumatic memories.
The goal of EMDR is to alter the way that the brain stores memories of trauma, as this is thought to relieve PTSD symptoms. This is achieved with the help of a therapist, who uses bilateral stimulation to help the patient reprocess traumatic memories.
The therapist may ask a patient to follow the therapist’s finger as it moves back and forth from right to left while the patient thinks about traumatic memories. Or, they may use alternating left-right taps to achieve bilateral stimulation. As the patient receives bilateral stimulation, they focus on memories of the trauma and then discuss new thoughts with the therapist. EMDR is ultimately an eight-phase treatment, which is discussed in more detail below.
Origins and History of EMDR
EMDR has origins dating back to 1987, when Francine Shapiro discovered that bilateral eye movements led to a reduction in distress when thinking about upsetting material. She happened upon this observation coincidentally while walking in the park. This discovery led to research with trauma survivors to evaluate whether bilateral stimulation was effective as a treatment modality.
EMDR was initially called EMD, as it was viewed as just a desensitization technique. The first scientific study related to EMD found that it was effective for reducing symptoms in veterans and survivors of sexual assault. By 1991, after continued research, Shapiro changed the name to EMDR, as she realized that the procedure involved not only desensitization but also reprocessing of memories.
While initially developed for the treatment of trauma, the uses of EMDR have grown in recent years. It is now commonly used to relieve symptoms of depression and anxiety. It can also be used to enhance the quality of life in people with health problems. Research has found that the EMDR modality is effective for treating conditions including major depression, psychosis, obsessive-compulsive disorder, addiction, psychosis, bipolar disorder, and anxiety disorders.
How Does EMDR Therapy Work?
The exact mechanism of action for EMDR is not understood, but in general, EMDR therapists believe that trauma symptoms persist because traumatic memories have not been sufficiently processed. Because of the lack of processing, disturbing memories are stored in the brain. These memories can be triggered, causing PTSD symptoms to appear.
By helping patients to reprocess traumatic memories, they become desensitized to them, and they no longer cause distress. Regardless of the exact mechanism of action, eye movements seem to work to help patients reprocess traumatic memories. Some research has shown that patients who benefit from EMDR experience a stabilization of blood flow to brain regions that were previously over or under-active.
Research also suggests that with EMDR, traumatic memories move from overly emotional brain regions to higher-level regions that are capable of actually processing the memories. It is through this transfer that healing is believed to occur.
Phases of EMDR
EMDR is an eight-phase process, as described below:
- History-Taking: The therapist conducts a full assessment, including information about the patient’s symptoms and history of trauma. The patient and therapist also collaborate to develop goals for treatment, which could involve eliminating triggers or making plans for the future.
- Preparation: The patient receives education on the EMDR process. The therapist will teach the patient about EMDR techniques and practice bilateral stimulation.
- Assessment of the target memory: This phase activates whatever memory is the target of a particular EMDR session. The therapist will assess the images, thoughts, emotions and bodily sensations associated with the memory. These features are assessed using standardized measures, so progress can be evaluated over the course of treatment.
- Desensitization: This is the phase during which a patient focuses on target memories while engaging in bilateral stimulation. During this phase, the patient reports any new thoughts that come up, and the process of bilateral stimulation occurs until the memories no longer cause distress.
- Installation: During this phase, the patient is asked to formulate a more positive belief about the traumatic memory.
- Body Scan: Phase six requires the patient to scan their body for any physical responses that come up when thinking about the traumatic memory and the newly formed positive belief about it. The goal is for the patient to identify any remaining physical distress. If identified, it is processed, again using bilateral stimulation.
- Closure: This occurs at the end of each session. If the traumatic memory was not fully processed during one session, the therapist gives the patient tools for remaining safe until the next session.
- Re-evaluation: This phase occurs at the start of each new session after the first. The therapist evaluates the patient’s present psychological state. They may discuss what new memories have arisen since the last session to help them determine a focus for the current session.
EMDR Therapy Side Effects
The side effects of EMDR are usually regarded as mild. Some patients may experience negative thoughts or emotions between therapy sessions. An EMDR therapist should discuss potential negative side effects with patients and help them develop coping skills for managing these effects.
What Does EMDR Treat?
EMDR is often regarded as a trauma-specific intervention because it was originally developed for trauma treatment. However, as experts have learned more about this modality, they have found additional uses for EMDR.
In addition to trauma, EMDR may treat the following conditions:
- Major depression
- Bipolar disorder
- Anxiety disorders (ie: panic disorder, generalized anxiety, separation anxiety)
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder
- Chronic pain
There may be additional uses of EMDR. For instance, it can be used to treat patients who have a co-occurring diagnosis in addition to PTSD. Consider a patient who has both PTSD and an eating disorder, or PTSD, a co-occurring personality disorder.
Effectiveness of EMDR
Numerous studies have demonstrated that EMDR is an effective trauma treatment. In fact, the body of research on EMDR has found that it is just as effective as trauma-focused cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT).
EMDR might be slightly more effective than CBT for treating some specific symptoms, such as intrusion symptoms, arousal, and anxiety. Research has found that for adults, EMDR is more effective than antidepressant medications for reducing PTSD symptoms over the long term.
While there is plenty of research showing that EMDR is effective, it is still not entirely clear how, exactly, EMDR works. Future research will be needed to reveal the specific mechanisms of action for this treatment modality.
EMDR Treatment Providers in Kansas City
If you’re looking for EMDR therapy in the heart of Missouri, The Recovery Village Kansas City is here to help. We can treat mental health disorders, including PTSD, and we specialize in EMDR. We accept most insurances to make treatment affordable. Contact one of our Recovery Advocates today to get started.
American Psychological Association. “Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) Therapy.” 2017. Accessed November 4, 2023.
Pagani, Marco; Carletto, Sara. “A hypothetical mechanism of action of EMDR: The role of slow wave sleep.” Clinical Neuropsychiatry, 2017. Accessed November 4, 2023.
Horst, Ferdinand, et al. “Cognitive Behavioral Therapy vs. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing for Treating Panic Disorder: A Randomized Controlled Trial.” Frontiers in Psychology, August 18, 2017. Accessed November 4, 2023.
Cleveland Clinic. “EMDR Therapy.” March 29, 2022. Accessed November 4, 2023.
Snyder, Matthew; Trang, Diana. “Is EMDR effective in treatment of PTSD?” Evidence-Based Practice, March 2022. Accessed November 4, 2023.