How Does EMDR Therapy Work?

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By: Renaissance Recovery

Medically Reviewed by: Diana Vo, LMFT

Last Updated: 7/1/2021

An image of a woman asking her therapist How Does EMDR Therapy Work?

Authored By: Joe Gilmore

Table of Contents

How does EMDR therapy work is one of the most common questions asked by those diagnosed with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).

EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) was developed by trauma therapists to help the brain process and release memories of traumatic events by harnessing your eye movements.

What is EDMT therapy and how does it work, exactly?

What is EMDR Therapy?

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, commonly abbreviated to EMDR, is an interactive psychotherapeutic technique utilized to alleviate psychological stress.

The theory underpinning EMDR therapy holds that painful and traumatic memories can trigger post-traumatic stress when you do not properly process those memories. This means that when triggered by sights, sounds, smells, or thoughts associated with the trauma, you re-experience the traumatic event. When this occurs, emotional distress and PTSD symptoms present.

The goal of EMDR therapy is to relieve the symptoms of trauma by changing the way that your brain stores memories.

How does EMDR work, then?

A therapist will guide you through a series of side-to-side movements of the eyes as you recall traumatic events or triggering experiences. This process takes place slowly and under controlled conditions. Over time, the memories should no longer trigger distress or PTSD symptoms.

Although EMDR was first created to treat PTSD and trauma, this form of psychotherapy may also help to alleviate the symptoms of other trauma-related mental health conditions.

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EMDR Therapy: How Does it Work?

EMDR is a new and nontraditional form of talk therapy or psychotherapy.

In most cases, therapists use this technique to address responses to trauma and for the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder.

How does EMDR work on trauma, though?

Many people who witness or experience a traumatic event find that they are reminded of this trauma by various triggers. The memory of the trauma was not completely processed when the event occurred, and your brain and body react as though the event is unfolding again.

EMDR uses an adaptive information processing model. This approach allows your therapist to help you reprocess disturbing memories, enabling you to move past this constantly recurring obstacle.

By engaging with EMDR therapy, you will alter the way in which your brain stores traumatic memories. Forcing the brain to properly process the memory should enable you to recall the trauma without the intense emotional reactions that characterize post-traumatic stress.

The therapist will ask you to focus briefly on a specific traumatic memory. Next, they will instruct you to move your eyes from side to side while you remain focused on the traumatic memory. This process is called bilateral stimulation.

For those with visual processing issues, the therapist can instead play audio tones in the direction of both ears. Alternatively, the therapist may tap rhythmically on both hands to achieve the same bilateral stimulation.

Researchers theorize that EMDR works by streamlining communication between the left-hand side of the brain (responsible for reason and logic) and the right-hand side of the brain (responsible for emotion). With many probable mechanisms of action, this complex form of psychotherapy is not yet fully understood.

That said, this review of studies points to two promising theories to explain the effectiveness of EMDR therapy:

  • Working memory theory: By focusing on a traumatic memory at the same time as rapidly moving your eyes back and forth forces the brain to split its resources, leading to a less intense recall of the traumatic event. Resultantly, the memory should be much less emotionally intense. Over time, this leads to desensitization.
  • Physiological changes theory: Performing the rapid eye movements characteristic of EMDR therapy can slow breathing and heart rate, both markers of relaxation. This could enable you to transition from a fight or flight response laden with anxiety to a more balanced regulation of the CNS (central nervous system).

How Long Does EMDR Therapy Take to Work?

EMDR therapy consists of eight separate phases involving multiple sessions. In most cases, treatment will last for around twelve sessions.

  1. First phase: Evaluation phase during which the therapist will review your health history and your symptoms to help them better understand why you are engaging with EMDR therapy. Expect to talk briefly about your specific trauma during this initial phase of treatment.
  2. Second phase: During phase two, your therapist will teach you some techniques to help you manage psychological and emotional stress. This is termed resourcing. Two of the most common techniques used are mindfulness exercises and deep breathing.
  3. Third phase: Your therapist will guide you to select the memory and accompanying distress you would like to target in EMDR therapy.
  4. Fourth phase: Treatment begins during the fourth phase of EMDR with a process called desensitization. By focusing on the traumatic memory while performing specific eye movements, you should find this generates less stressful outcomes over time.
  5. Fifth phase: During the fifth phase of EMDR – installation – you will replace the unwanted beliefs with a more positive alternative.
  6. Sixth phase: Phase six of EMDR is known as body scan. Your therapist will ask you about any physical pain or emotional distress triggered by reliving the traumatic memory.
  7. Seventh phase: After each EMDR session, your therapist will monitor your progress and suggest appropriate coping strategies.
  8. Eighth phase: The final phase of eye movement desensitization and reprocessing involves exploring the feelings and memories addressed in the previous EMDR session.

How does EMDR therapy work at Renaissance Recovery?

Therapy at Renaissance Recovery

PTSD is an aggravating condition, but it also typically responds well to treatment.

The most effective treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder will vary depending on your personal circumstances, as well as the nature of the trauma. In many cases, EMDR therapy delivers favorable outcomes.

Here at Renaissance Recovery, we appreciate the difficulty of finding the right mental health specialist, and we can connect you with experienced psychologists or psychiatrists near you.

Many people struggling with undiagnosed PTSD self-medicate the distressing symptoms with addictive substances. If you have addiction co-occurring with post-traumatic stress disorder, we can help you tackle both issues simultaneously with dual diagnosis treatment.

Don’t suffer in silence if traumatic memories are disrupting your daily functioning. Instead, commit to a course of therapy to release those memories and to reclaim your life from PTSD. Reach out to the friendly team by calling 866.330.9449 right now.

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Joseph Gilmore has been in the addiction industry for three years with experience working for facilities all across the country

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