Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing: What is EMDR?

If you’ve ever seen a demonstration or heard somebody describe the desensitization phase of a specific psychotherapy, you may have found it more than curious.

“A therapist asking you to follow a stimulus back and forth in front of a patient’s face? And that is supposed to help them get over traumatic events? – What kind of hocus-pocus is that?” you may ask.

It is called Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy, and it has a proven scientific basis.

What Is EMDR Therapy?

EMDR is a psychotherapy that helps you heal the wounds of traumatic experiences and achieve balanced emotional health. Unlike regular talk therapy, EMDR addresses the root of your problems. It is the fastest and most effective evidence-based treatment for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). 

There are eight phases to EMDR therapy, one of which includes the aforementioned light beam/waving of the therapist’s hand (or other bilateral stimulation) to provoke rapid eye movements.

Phase 1: Treatment Planning

The therapist will thoroughly evaluate your psychological history and determine if you are a candidate for this type of treatment. During this process, they will identify possible target areas for EMDR processing and map out a treatment plan. 

Phase 2: Preparation

During desensitization (Phase 4) you may experience strong sensations and emotions. This is because the EMDR technique calls for you to focus on the worst part of a particular experience. Therefore, the therapist will begin teaching you a variety of ways to handle your distress during and between sessions. 

Phase 3: Assessment

Using EMDR procedures, the therapist will guide you to identify a vivid visual image related to your disturbing memory. They will ask you to describe related thoughts, emotions, and sensations connected to the experience.

Phase 4: Desensitization

While you focus on the troubling memory, the therapist will stimulate you to exercise sets of rapid, bilateral (right to left) eye movements. This encourages your brain to process the disturbing experience. The therapist will ask you for feedback on whatever thoughts, feelings, or sensations come to your mind in order to monitor your level of distress.

Phase 5: Installation

During this phase, the therapist will carefully help you shift your mind. The aim is to direct you toward new and positive thoughts and emotions about the traumatic event.

Phase 6: Body Scan

At this point, the therapist will help you identify and reduce any remaining discomfort – physical, mental, or emotional – connected to the disturbing memory.

Phase 7: Debriefing

Together with the therapist, you will examine the progress you’ve made so far. This includes assessing whether you need additional support to move recovery along.

Phase 8: Re-evaluation

The therapist will remind you of the self-calming techniques that you’ve learned during phase two. They may also instruct you to document any issues that arise that are related to your traumatic memory.

Through EMDR therapy, your mind can heal from psychological trauma just as quickly and wholly as your body can recover from physical injury. In fact, successful EMDR treatment can transform your painful memories into a feeling of empowerment.

And all this healing happens without you having to talk about the details of your traumatic experience. For that reason, EMDR therapy is an excellent method to help combat veterans overcome PTSD. There is no need to divulge classified information.

What Is EMDR Therapy’s Scientific Basis?

When your therapist asks you to focus on the troubling memory and all its aspects while using your eyes to track a light beam, something interesting occurs. An association in your brain forms and you begin processing the memory and the related, thoughts, emotions and sensations.

Researchers believe this happens because the bilateral eye movement stimulated during therapy is linked with the mechanism of Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep. During this stage of sleep, dreaming occurs and your brain naturally processes experiences. EMDR stimulates a similar response.

Following a successful EMDR session, a person no longer re-lives the images, sounds, smells, and feelings when the event is brought to mind. You still remember what happened, but the memories don't have the emotional charge that it previously had.