Understanding EMDR Therapy for Trauma

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) is a relatively new form of psychotherapy that uses bilateral (i.e., two-sided) eye movements, tapping, or tones to “reprogram” your brain to resolve and heal upsetting memories and trauma. Counselors and therapists recommend EMDR to help heal post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other troubling emotional symptoms quickly and effectively, without the need for drugs or long-term treatment. You may have PTSD if you experienced trauma such as:

At the Soho Center for Mental Health Counseling in New York City’s Greenwich Village, our highly skilled and compassionate mental health specialists are trained in EMDR as well as other supportive therapies. If you suffer from PTSD,  here’s what you should know about healing with EMDR.

What is EMDR?

A psychologist named Francine Shapiro developed EMDR in 1989, after she took a walk in the woods and noticed that her negative emotions calmed down as she darted her eyes from side-to-side. She had her patients repeat the side-to-side (i.e., bilateral) eye movements during their therapy sessions, and they noticed the same positive, calming effect. She then developed an Adaptive Information Processing model for using EMDR as a treatment for PTSD and other forms of anxiety.

Although traditional therapies focus on changing thoughts and behaviors, EMDR targets the traumatic memories directly. More than 20,000 clinicians worldwide have learned how to administer EMDR.

The Department of Veterans Affairs, the Department of Defense, and the American Psychiatric Association all recommend EMDR to treat PTSD. Therapists also use EMDR to help people who suffer from:

Unlike traditional talk therapy, which can take years to heal trauma, EMDR typically works in an average of 6-12 sessions over a course of one to three months. The treatment is given solely in the Soho Center for Mental Health Counseling office; you don’t have to do any homework.

How does EMDR work?

When women, men, and children with PTSD have symptoms such as nightmares and flashbacks, their brains haven’t been able to fully process their experience, so they keep reliving it. Although nobody is quite sure why EMDR is so effective, when patients talk about traumatic memories while simultaneously undergoing bilateral, rhythmic stimulation (e.g., eye movements, tapping, or listening to tones), the stimulation seems to change the way the memory is stored in the brain. 

After EMDR, women and men report that the vividness and emotional impact of the memory is reduced. In some studies, up to 90% of people who suffered a single trauma no longer had PTSD after just three 90-minute sessions of EMDR. In another study, after just six 50-minute sessions, 100% of people who’d suffered single traumas and 77% of people who suffered multiple traumas no longer had PTSD.

What happens when I get EMDR?

When you get EMDR, your therapist asks you to concentrate on three time periods: the past (i.e., traumatic experience and other related events), present (i.e., your current symptoms and other things that distress you), and future (i.e., the skills and attitudes you need to put the memory in perspective and take positive actions). All of these are addressed in the eight phases of EMDR treatment:

Phase 1

Your therapist takes a history and devises a treatment plan. During this phase, you decide which memories to target for reprocessing. You also talk about what kinds of specific behaviors you need to develop to handle future situations.

Phase 2

During this phase, your therapist teaches you stress-reduction techniques that you can use between EMDR sessions. 

Phases 3-6

These sessions target the troubling memory with EMDR. You identify:

  1. The visual images that come up during the memory
  2. The negative belief you have about yourself because of the memory
  3. Whatever emotions and body sensations the memory arouses
  4. A positive belief that you could have about the memory

Your therapist then has you concentrate on the memory while performing whatever EMDR technique (e.g., eye movements, tapping, or tones) is best for you. You report on any sensations or changes you experience during the EMDR.

Phase 7

During the closure phase, you keep a log of any symptoms you have before your next appointment. The log also reminds you of calming techniques that you’ve mastered.

Phase 8

In the last phase, you examine all of the work you’ve done and evaluate the results.

What can I expect after EMDR?

Although you can’t undo the trauma you experienced in the past, EMDR helps you change the way you experience it in your present and how you deal with it in the future. After EMDR, you feel like you can make more sense of the experience you had and feel stronger for having survived it, so that you can move forward in your life. As you let go of and reformulate your trauma, you may experience benefits such as:

You don’t have to live in the traumatic past anymore. Contact us about EMDR for PTSD and trauma relief by using the online form or calling our friendly staff during office hours.

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