Ever watched a therapy session on TV with the patient recounting problems while staring at flickering lights, following the therapist’s finger with their eyes as it goes left to right, or holding vibrating paddles? If so, you have just seen three variations of an EMDR therapy session. You’ve probably heard about the miraculous results of this controversial treatment on trauma patients, but what does it accomplish?
One can expect these results after EMDR therapy: the resolution of traumatic experiences, stress relief, freedom from phobias, a more optimistic life perspective, brain rejuvenation, new coping tools to deal with stressors, grief management, and alleviation of symptoms of mental health disorders.
EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) therapy helps patients with trauma or mental health disorders using a combination of psychotherapy and hypnotic eye movements. Continue reading for more on this unique mindfulness-based therapy approach.
What Is EMDR?
EMDR is a specialized, evidence-based therapy that helps emotionally distressed people recover from traumatic experiences. It involves “bilateral dual-attention stimulation” (side-to-side eye movement is an example), which the therapist uses to change how the brain stores memories.
Nancy J. Smyth, an EMDR therapist, explains how trauma works. It overwhelms the mind’s natural information processing system, leaving the memory stuck as if the experience is currently happening. People with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) feel as if they’re reliving this trauma, even though they know it happened in the past.
EMDR accesses and processes traumatic memories. It minimizes psychological disturbances and relieves “affective distress” (caused by negative beliefs) by rewiring the brain. Patients will still remember negative events but won’t react with stress response (fight, flight, freeze) anymore.
How It Works
EMDR therapy has eight phases. Each session lasts from 50 to 90 minutes. The therapist moves their fingers/hands from left to right in front of a patient’s face. The patient’s eyes follow the hand movements while recalling a traumatic incident and the physical feelings accompanying it. This is known as bilateral stimulation.
During the session, the therapist also guides the patient to meditate. This will prompt the patient to think about the traumatic event but also dig into other deep-seated memories.
These EMDR techniques (which we will tackle in future articles) are alternatives to the eye movement method:
- EMDR apps
- Self-administered or home-based EMDR
- Virtual EMDR
- Tapping the arms or shoulders
- Listening to music or binaural beats using earphones
- Vibrating paddles
The above options are useful in instances when patients cannot tolerate bilateral stimulation using the eyes. An example is when a patient has a visual disorder. Some people with light sensitivity or epilepsy won’t be able to handle flashing lights.
Who Created EMDR?
Psychologist Dr. Francine Shapiro developed it in 1987 to help people living with PTSD process traumatic memories. She was battling cancer when she discovered EMDR. Since then, its use and evidence of success have grown exponentially. The EMDR Institute details the therapy’s history, background, procedure, and benefits on its website.
Shapiro emphasizes that EMDR is not a technique but a form of psychotherapy at par with psychodynamic therapy—interprets mental and emotional processes instead of focusing on behavior and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)—talk psychotherapy. This distinction is vital because EMDR is a form of treatment guided by a distinct information processing model. That’s why it is categorized as an “information processing therapy.”
What To Expect After EMDR Treatment
The results (positive or negative) can range from subtle to remarkable—even short of miraculous—depending on the type of trauma and the individual. These are only some of them:
- EMDR revitalizes the mind, resulting in some patients feeling amped up from the brain stimulation. Conversely, others feel beaten up in the beginning. They feel like their brain or head is swollen after a session. This feeling is temporary. It doesn’t mean the head is actually bloated.
- As with any type of regression therapy, EMDR can be emotionally taxing. Former nurse and EMDR patient James Steinmetz said he felt exhausted after sessions. During the most intense portion of his therapy cycle, he claimed that he slept for up to three hours after.
- EMDR isn’t for the feeble. Recalling distressing memories can leave patients feeling anxious and strained even after the session ends. But this is normal and will decrease over time.
- EMDR recurrently stimulates the brain’s left and right hemispheres (sides), so some will feel a sort of vibration in the chest and tummy post-session. Others report that it feels like being intoxicated. Some say it reminds them of being slightly disoriented even though they’re awake. These feelings will pass.
- Shapiro claims EMDR eliminates phantom limb pain suffered by millions due to injuries from war, accidents, land mines, and diabetes. She says this type of pain can be eliminated in 12 sessions.
- Those who use EMDR to tackle addiction will discover that their desire to use addictive substances or engage in addictive behavior has diminished or stopped. That’s why EMDR has turned out to be the treatment of first resort for addiction.
- Those who use EMDR to combat phobias realize that many of the things they used to be afraid of aren’t that frightful. For instance, EMDR has resolved the fear of flying in many patients. It has successfully treated agoraphobia—extreme, irrational fear of being in open or crowded venues, leaving home, or finding oneself in hard-to-escape places.
- Those who use EMDR to treat compulsive overeating may lose weight because the therapy decreases or eliminates the desire to binge. Attraction to food lessens over the course of treatment.
- Unlike some prescription medicine, EMDR continues to be effective even after treatment concludes because it gently impacts the neurons in the brain, forcing buried memories to resurface. For instance, patients recall their childhood more vividly.
- On the flip side, persistent memories will fade and eventually disappear. You will still remember them if forced, but they won’t bother you anymore. They’ll simply be regular memories.
- Since EMDR releases blocked memories, it may cause lucid dreams as a side-effect.
- EMDR patients find inner peace after purging mortifying issues that used to fester inside them.
- Patients will be more daring and adventurous, engaging in pursuits or venturing into places they only dreamed of previously—literally and otherwise.
- They will discover the brain’s natural ability to heal itself because it does most of the work during sessions.
- They will be privy to EMDR’s brain-hacking (targeting psychological well-being) and biohacking (focusing on longevity and physical fitness) capabilities. EMDR is part of a trend in brain scrutiny technologies. Pundits used to predict that these advancements will be home-based in three decades, yet this is now a reality, thanks (ironically) to pandemic-related quarantines and lockdowns. We now have virtual EMDR!
- EMDR helps patients confront unpleasant thoughts and emotions built up inside. Sessions will compel all those to the surface so that the brain can process the information in a healthy way. As a result, patients will find themselves getting emotional over things that previously didn’t bother them. Emotions and tears will unexpectedly come flooding out. But all this will pass as they heal.
- EMDR won’t solve everything. Even if patients use it to control erratic behavior, treat depression, manage grief, or get sober, they still have to face day-to-day challenges. The good news is, they now view these as everyday problems regular folks have post-therapy.
- EMDR patients will feel grateful as they get better, propelling the healing process to advance further.
- EMDR removes overwhelming, destructive, and painful emotions and thoughts. That’s why after therapy, patients are physically and psychologically healthier, more positive, kinder to themselves, emotionally tougher, and relieved of stress. Life, after all, seems less burdensome.
- A niggling aspect of having severe disorders like addiction, obsession-compulsion, or PTSD is that it drives the sufferer to think about problems all the time. EMDR reduces obsessive behavior that typically accompanies these conditions so that the issues are either eliminated or rendered insignificant.
- Patients have to face some matters better left buried. But they’ll come to terms with these eventually. It’s all part of the healing process.
- EMDR coerces patients to re-evaluate their lives, resulting in regret, remorse, and sadness. They may wonder what life might have been like if the past was different.
- Patients acquire a sense of wellness that positively affects their relationships. They can now use energy formerly directed toward worries to improve their interactions with others.
- Patients may lose some old pals but make new ones—especially true of those who use EMDR to deal with addiction. Once they overcome the condition, they will be less inclined to hang out with addicted buddies, veering instead toward people with whom they can develop healthy friendships.
- Patients develop a new outlook in life because daily stress doesn’t have power over them anymore. Still, some thoughts will pop up unexpectedly that have nothing to do with what they are currently doing or thinking.
- They may experience a change in replacement thought from “theory” to “reality.” For instance, before EMDR, they understand that when somebody hurts them, it has nothing to do with them. After therapy, they will be convinced that this is absolutely true. This is an impressive result and EMDR’s ultimate goal.
The Re-evaluation Phase
Of the eight EMDR phases, this last one helps the therapist determine the appropriate treatment plan for each client’s case. The therapist must monitor the success (or failure) of the therapy over time. Although many clients feel relief almost instantly, they have to complete all eight stages in the same way that one needs to finish a course of treatment with antibiotics.
One should not expect instant results from a single session. As with other forms of therapy, EMDR is not a one-off solution. It can take many sessions to process root causes and disturbing memories effectively.
Smyth says the time EMDR takes to work varies. If patients have strong coping skills for managing stressors or seek treatment for an isolated traumatic event, the preparation for treatment may be shorter. The process typically takes three to 12 sessions.
EMDR works best when paired with other CBT modalities. Shapiro stressed this when she introduced the therapy to the medical community. She said the procedure desensitizes the agitation associated with devastating memories but does not entirely eradicate all PTSD symptoms and complications, nor offers coping strategies to patients.
You will experience a few or many of the above changes depending on the problem you are trying to resolve with EMDR. The most significant result is that it will help you eliminate (or at least manage) the issue, behavior, or mental health condition blocking your path to a healthier, more fulfilling existence. We hope this article has clarified concerns about what EMDR can and cannot solve post-treatment.