What is EMDR?
As defined by the EMDR Institute, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing is “a psychotherapy that enables people to heal from the symptoms and emotional distress that are the result of disturbing life experiences.” The goal of EMDR therapy is to work through what may be holding you back, give you a chance to process/deal with negative beliefs/emotions/past traumas, and provide you with the tools you need to feel confident in moving forward in a positive way. Since it’s development in 1988, EMDR has been used to treat individuals with PTSD as well as anxiety, depression, fears, etc. It is important to note that each individual is different and the process of healing may be quicker/faster for some depending on their specific needs/past. With that said, let’s dig into the different phases of EMDR Therapy.
8 Phases of EMDR Therapy
- Phase One: History and Treatment Planning
- During your first few sessions with your therapist they will take a thorough history of the client as they begin to build the treatment plan. In this treatment plan, your therapist will define the specific targets on which to use EMDR, which may be present situations that cause distress, traumatic events from your past that have contributed to/created the problem, and key behavior/skills that may be helpful for you to learn for your future well-being.
- Phase Two: Preparation
- During this phase, your therapist will walk you through the theory of EMDR, how it is done, and what you may expect during/after treatment. During this phase, your therapist will also equip you with stress management tools/techniques to help you cope/calm yourself in case any emotional disturbance arises during/after a session.
- Phase Three: Assessment
- During this phase, your therapist will identify different parts of the “target” to be processed. As a reminder, the “target” may be a traumatic event from your past, a current stressor, and/or negative emotions/cognitions/beliefs that you may have about yourself/abilities. While identifying specific memories to target- you will also identify any/all other associated components for each target memory. For example, an associated component could be any physical sensation that is stimulated when concentrating on a certain event.
- Phase 4-7: Treatment
- The treatment phase begins with the client identifying the following three things: a vivid visual image related to the memory, a negative belief about self, related emotions/body sensations. As you focus on this image/thought/sensation, your therapist will engage you in EMDR processing using sets of bilateral stimulation. These may include eye movements, taps, or tones. The length/type of set may be different between clients. During each set of stimulation, the client is asked to just notice whatever happens/comes to them in that moment. After each set of stimulation, the clinician will allow the client’s mind to go black and take note of any image/feeling/thought/memory that comes to mind. From there, your therapist will choose the next area of focus and you will continue with intervals of stimulation and discuss. Again, the actual treatment phase varies in length depending on your personal needs, but you will continue with this until you have worked through any/all past events/traumas and current stressors that are affecting you.
- Phase 8: Evaluation
- During this phase, you and your therapist will discuss the progress made thus far.
I also want to give a personal example! It is a bit hard to understand what EMDR is actually like just by reading about the phases, so I want to briefly explain what my experience with EMDR has been like so far for me in my EMDR journey. I am still in the treatment phase, but I was pleasantly surprised with how great I felt after our first real EMDR session. Before we got to the fun part, we met about 4 times to chat through my history and biggest traumas/stressors- we had decided together on our first target. We discussed thoughts/feelings/beliefs that came up when discussing this specific trigger, and we were ready to process it further using EMDR techniques.
At first she had me sit up, so I could be in an attentive position, and I was able to watch her hand as she moved it. She asked me to watch her finger as I focused on the event we had been discussing and process the event in my head. I watched her hand as she moved 2 fingers side-to-side in a lateral line for about 20-30 seconds at a time. When she put her hand down; we took a deep breath, and I said whatever was on my mind. I felt awkward at first because I wasn’t sure if I was doing it right, but I found that there isn’t really a wrong way to process your thoughts. During the first few “sets’, I honestly didn’t think about anything related to trauma. I was thinking about her hand, if I was moving, what my legs were doing, but when she paused/stopped her hand- I would still say anything that came to mind.
After a few sets, I actually started to process things while we were doing the eye movements. Whether it was a totally new connection, a link or new memory, a new way of thinking about the events that had happened to me- literally anything that came to mind. If I had brought up a new positive connection- we tapped it in. EMDR Therapy specifically uses “Resource Tapping.” In short, “resource tapping” is a form of bilateral stimulation along with visual imagery used in EMDR therapy to create powerful, positive associations. It is said that this technique can help rebalance the nervous system, activate the parasympathetic restoration cycle, and teach self-regulation. There is also research that tapping is an effective method to reduce anxiety, depression, triggers, fear, sleeping problems. By using tapping for bilateral stimulation, as you are activating and integrating this positive info from both sides of the brain.
Again, I am still in the treatment phase, so we are still working through things, but I have already learned new grounding/stress management techniques that I use during the day to help manage my anxiety/stress.
Overall, EMDR is an incredible treatment option! The main goal is that the client leaves feeling empowered by the very experiences that once held them back. One of the coolest parts is that, even if you’re not comfortable sharing super detailed information about what you’ve experienced; you’ll still get the chance to work through that as you’re comfortable while learning more ways, on your own, to manage those thoughts/feelings. In general, the goal is reduce the emotional/physiological response when it comes to recalling certain events, bring attention to any past memories that may be contributing to your current problem, the present situations that may be distressing, and learn new skills/techniques that may help you navigate challenges in the future.
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