EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing therapy)

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing therapy (EMDR) is a form of trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy [link to CBT] specifically developed for reducing the power of traumatic memories.

Treating trauma and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing therapy (EMDR) is a form of trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy [link to CBT] specifically developed for reducing the power of traumatic memories. A trained therapist will guide you to think about a trauma while moving your eyes back and forth, left to right. Over time, this will help your brain reprocess the memories so that they no longer cause as much pain.

As in typical cognitive behavioral therapy, with EMDR treatment, you first establish a supportive relationship with your therapist through conversation. You may also learn some new skills to cope with uncomfortable feelings that EMDR may bring up. The next phases of EMDR will most likely take multiple sessions. You’ll select a traumatic memory to reprocess, a memory that causes you great discomfort and triggers PTSD symptoms. While you imagine a traumatic scene from the event, your therapist will guide you to focus on the thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations that come up. At the same time, you will be asked to move your eyes back and forth, left to right rapidly, like in REM sleep. Your therapist might use their hand, a light bar that pulses back and forth, or audible taps to your left and right. This movement helps emotions related to the trauma to arise, and the therapist may have you stop the eye movements to talk about your perception of these emotions, to help you process them. Over time and possibly several repeated sessions, your emotions connected to these memories should lower in intensity, until they no longer cause tremendous pain. At that point, your therapist will help you to replace the associated negative thoughts and emotions with healthier thoughts and positive associations. For example, someone who was sexually assaulted may shift from feeling shame and helplessness to feeling empowered and strong.

There is disagreement in the medical field about how EMDR works. The World Health Organization tells us, “[EMDR] is based on the idea that negative thoughts, feelings and behaviors are the result of unprocessed memories (“Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing,” 2021).” EMDR may allow for the patient to access and reprocess those memories resulting in a decreased negative reaction to the trauma. The mechanism by which EMDR achieves this effect is still being investigated. One theory is that actively engaging in 2 tasks at the same time (i.e., visual imagery and eye movements) leads to competition for limited working memory resources. Over time and with repeated dual tasking practice, this competition for resources may result in the emotional aspects of the memory becoming less vivid and/or intense. This allows the patient to achieve distance from the traumatic memory, so they can re-evaluate the trauma without being overwhelmed by their emotional reaction to it. However, this research is still in the early stages and it remains unclear to what extent the addition of the eye movements contribute to the proven effectiveness as compared to the cognitive behavioral piece alone.

You should look for a well-trained and experienced EMDR clinician with training and experience in trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy. It’s helpful if they have experience treating your specific type of trauma, for example trauma from sexual assault, war fighting, or a natural disaster. It’s important that you’re able to feel a good connection to the therapist, that you feel safe and supported.


Where can I find more information?

EMDR Institute: https://www.emdr.com/

If you or a loved one are considering EMDR therapy, contact us at 407-851-5121 to get the help you need today.

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