Individuals who experience real-life traumas can benefit from the healing magic of EMDR therapy. Not that it is a magic cure, but it may seem so compared to other traditional forms of psychotherapy. EMDR therapy can help your clients feel more calm in the face of traumatic memories and help prepare them to heal and move forward.
What is EMDR Therapy?
Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy is known for its positive results in a relatively short amount of time—depending on the complexity and severity of trauma.
In session, clients follow rapid back and forth movements with their eyes during bilateral stimulation while the clinician instructs them to go with whatever thought, image, or event has appeared in their mind.
The combination of rapid eye movement while thinking about past events in a kind of cinematic fashion—as if one’s memories were scenes from a movie—allows the brain to reprocess maladaptively filed memories.
Clients often report feeling a sense of relief and calm. And after a series of sessions, clients have reported that they don’t even think about the targeted memory anymore—nor do they feel the triggers towards certain behaviors the way they once did. They feel healed and ready to move on from issues of the past that once affected their present selves.
The Origins of EMDR Therapy
What we now know as EMDR therapy began in the 1980s. While walking in the park, psychologist and educator Francine Shapiro noticed that her own rapid eye movements seemed to be decreasing the negative emotions she had associated with her own distressing memories.
After incorporating some additional treatment methods, including a cognitive component, Shapiro conducted a study of what she called Eye Movement Desensitization (EMD). That study found that even just one session successfully desensitized participants’ traumatic memories, and that those results carried on through the remainder of the three month study.
To this day, the research continues to uphold the efficacy of EMDR therapy, especially in its treatment of trauma-related conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depressive or anxious comorbid symptoms. A study done in 2017 about the efficacy of using EMDR therapy to treat PTSD in adolescents found that EMDR was comparable to other cognitive treatment methods. And the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and Department of Defense recommend EMDR therapy as part of treatment for PTSD, citing strong evidence for the protocol’s use from clinical trials.
Utilizing Standardized Protocols
There’s strong support for EMDR therapy in the clinical world because the evidence so far supports that it can be helpful to clients who need it. And part of this consistency of supportive research may come from the fact that EMDR therapy is guided by standardized protocols.
At its foundation is the Adaptive Information Processing (AIP) Model, which posits that when inadequately processed memories are triggered, it may result in psychological symptoms. EMDR therapy then employs an eight-step, three-pronged approach to target maladaptively stored memory and begins to reprocess those memories through bilateral stimulation.
Unlike other traditional psychotherapy methods, clients who engage in EMDR therapy don’t talk deeply about their experiences to find relief from past traumas. While clients engaging in traditional talk therapies may continually return to certain memories, something totally different happens for clients in EMDR therapy.
What Goes On: Hallways vs. Pathways
One way to think about the difference between talk therapies and EMDR therapy is by depicting the clients’ experience in each. In traditional talk therapies, maladaptive memories are kept behind doors in a hallway. In therapy, the client continues to visit that hallway and the memories behind each door.
In EMDR therapy, on the other hand, pathways are opened for the brain to do its own work of reprocessing and filing traumatic memories so they’re finally finished. In talk therapies, the client hopes those doors in the hallway won’t open unexpectedly and trigger repeated unwanted emotions or behaviors. But with EMDR therapy, those memories have been reprocessed by the brain, so a client doesn’t need to fear their resurfacing. Often, the client stops thinking about them at all.
While this may sound too good to be true for some people, the proof that EMDR therapy can work can be found in the research and clinical trials. EMDR therapy has been used to successfully treat everything from PTSD, anxiety, and depression to enhancing performance for athletes and creative professionals, just to name a few.
Those of us working in the mental health profession know just how many trauma-related issues and maladaptive behaviors affect our clients. There’s no one right treatment method for every client, and you’ll need to use your best judgement and your knowledge of your client to determine what option is best. If it’s the right fit for your clients, EMDR therapy allows clients the opportunity to let go of past traumas, begin to heal, and move forward to their future with greater resilience.
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