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Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)

EMDR is an evidence-based therapy that uses eye movements to help people deal with trauma in a safe space.

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What is EMDR?

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) is a type of therapy that enables people to heal from the symptoms and emotional distress resulting from trauma and other disturbing life events or experiences. 

EMDR therapy does not rely on talk therapy or medications. Instead, EMDR uses a patient's own rapid, rhythmic eye movements to dampen the power of emotionally charged memories of past traumatic events.

It is widely assumed that severe emotional pain requires a long time to heal. For many people, EMDR has shortened that timeframe to months and in some cases weeks. Through guided EMDR therapy, some people can experience the benefits of more traditional therapies that can sometimes take years to produce the same effects. 

EMDR therapy shows that the mind can heal from psychological trauma similarly to how the body recovers from physical trauma.

EMDR differs from other trauma-focused treatments in that it does not include extended exposure to the distressing memory, detailed descriptions of the trauma, or the challenging of dysfunctional beliefs.

Teen suffering from trauma alone in the bathroom

What is EMDR normally used to treat?

Although much of the research and practice of EMDR has focused on people with PTSD (particularly resulting from combat, violence, or sexual trauma), it is used to treat many other psychological conditions. They include:

  • Addiction
  • Anxiety, such as fear public speaking or dental procedures
  • Depression
  • Eating disorders
  • Panic attacks
  • Dissociative identity disorder
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What is involved in an EMDR session? 

An EMDR treatment session can last up to 90 minutes. Your therapist will move their fingers back and forth in front of your face and ask you to follow these hand motions with your eyes. At the same time, the EMDR therapist will have you recall a disturbing event. This will include the emotions and body sensations that go along with it.

Gradually, the therapist will guide you to shift your thoughts to more pleasant ones. Some therapists use alternatives to finger movements, such as hand or toe tapping or musical tones.

EMDR is typically delivered one to two times per week for a total of 6 to 12 sessions. Some people benefit from fewer sessions. Sessions can be done on consecutive days.

EMDR therapy often uses a structured, phased approach that includes sessions dedicated to history-taking, preparing the client, assessing the target memory, reprocessing the target memory, and so on. At the end is an evaluation of treatment results.

How does EMDR work?

Even the most enthusiastic supporters of EMDR do not agree on the exact mechanism behind it.

The basic structure is to have the patient recall a distressing event and then divert attention from the emotional consequences of the event. In doing so, EMDR borrows somewhat from prolonged exposure therapy, the traditional treatment for PTSD. Some therapists think the key with EMDR is simply that it reduces anxiety, allowing patients to gain control over their upsetting thoughts.

EMDR appears to be a safe therapy, with no commonly reported negative side effects.

According to American Psychiatric Association guidelines, EMDR needs further study to more fully understand it.

Man participating in EMDR therapy
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How does EMDR therapy affect the brain?

Our brains have a natural way to recover from traumatic memories and events. This process involves communication between different parts of the brain, including the amygdala, the hippocampus, and the prefrontal cortex. Often our brains are able to manage and resolve these traumatic events spontaneously. Other times, people need help by way of therapies such as EMDR.

When distress from a disturbing event or memory remains, the upsetting images, thoughts, and emotions may create an overwhelming feeling of being back in that moment. EMDR therapy helps the brain process these memories, which in turn allows it to heal. You still remember the event or experience, but the fight, flight, or freeze response to it is no longer present.

How was EMDR developed?

EMDR was originated and popularized by Francine Shapiro, PhD, (1948-2019) an American psychologist and educator. While walking through the woods one day in 1987, Shapiro noticed that her own negative emotions decreased as her eyes darted from side to side.

The experience led her to examine this phenomenon more systematically. Working with many volunteers over the next several years, she developed standardized procedures to improve outcomes, conducted additional research, and published a randomized controlled study with trauma victims.

More than 20,000 practitioners have been trained to use EMDR since Shapiro first started using it.

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3 key things to know about EMDR

In a 2014, a review of 24 research studies on EMDR found three clear outcomes:

  1. EMDR may help relieve the emotional distress that follows disturbing events or experiences.
  2. EMDR can be more effective and work more quickly than cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). 
  3. EMDR may help with certain physical symptoms that sometimes accompany trauma, such as pain or muscle tension.

EMDR is a uniquely effective treatment option for those living with PTSD, panic attacks, and other serious mental health challenges. At Charlie Health, our clinicians are trained and certified in EMDR and other evidence-based therapies in order to create treatment programs that are designed to address your unique mental health needs. Let us help you start your healing journey today.

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