Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a psychotherapy technique designed to assist the brain in accessing and processing traumatic memories. It has demonstrated particular benefit in the treatment of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). But how, exactly, does EMDR work? And how does it differ from traditional methods of treatment for PTSD?

The concept of EMDR was first developed in 1981 as an interactive psychotherapy method for PTSD patients. It is supposed that individuals with PTSD have unprocessed memories, which can lead to disturbing flashbacks that trigger symptoms. EMDR encourages PTSD patients to briefly access these traumatic memories in short segments while undergoing gentle bilateral stimulation (BLS). BLS can be in the form of rhythmic eye movements back and forth, or alternating taps and tones.  

The bilateral stimulation produces a distraction subtle enough to allow the patient to focus on the memory, but significant enough to dim its vividness. BLS thus acts as a tether to safety while painful memories are accessed. 

What Happens During EMDR?

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing therapy will differ depending on the specific needs of the patient. In general, however, you can expect the following:

Patient History

Your provider will obtain a thorough medical history, including current complaints, diagnoses, and medications. He or she will discuss your traumatic event, known triggers, and plans to achieve short term and long term improvement of symptoms.

Patient Preparation

It is important that EMDR patients are fully informed of the process. Before formally beginning, your provider will discuss which bilateral stimulation techniques will be used and allow you to practice. 

You will also review and practice what is known as a Safe/Calm exercise. This is a “state change” exercise that can involve a combination of image provocation, physical stimuli, verbal guidance, and dual attention stimulus (DAS) and/or bilateral eye movement. 

The safe/calm exercise provides another buoy in case you sink too far into your memory. If your level of anxiety spikes during the EMDR session, your provider will help you access your personal safe/calm place. This could be anything you like, from a quiet beach to sitting on the couch with your dog. Your doctor will then help you to visualize the space further by asking you certain questions. Your peaceful space will be grounded with bilateral eye movements or DAS, such as light tapping from side to side or a pleasant, alternating tone.

Assessment and Desensitization

Once you feel adequately prepared for the therapy to begin, your provider will help you access the traumatic memory and repeatedly assess how you are feeling. When you are focused on the memory, your provider will engage in bilateral eye movements or another form of bilateral stimulation. Your provider will help determine which images, emotions, or sensations to focus on during each BLS session.

Depending on how you have responded to the therapy, your provider will discuss future sessions and frequency. If a particular memory was not fully processed during a session, your provider will instruct you on how to contain the memory safely until the next visit. 

What Makes EMDR Different?

Traditional methods for treating PTSD usually involve some combination of talk therapy and medications. The focus of these methods is largely the patient’s emotional and physical response in certain situations. They can familiarize themselves with triggers and learn coping mechanisms to regain function and quality of life. Medications can help treat comorbid conditions, such as panic disorder and depression. 

While this type of treatment can be very beneficial, it is not always effective long term. EMDR offers a unique approach in that it does not focus on the emotional response or behavior of the patient. Instead, it focuses on a specific memory, which the provider believes must be processed in order to begin recovery. It is a methodical approach, which can be very appealing to patients feeling overwhelmed by their trauma. Furthermore, it restores an element of control to the patient over a situation in which they likely had none. 

What Can EMDR Treat?

EMDR is predominantly recommended for the treatment of PTSD. However, ongoing research supports its use in a variety of mental health disorders, including bipolar disorder, anxiety, depression, and substance abuse disorder. Your provider will work with you to determine if EMDR is a good treatment option for you. 

EMDR Therapy in Florida

At the Crane Center, we understand that there is no one-size fits all approach to mental health. Just because something works for the majority of people does not mean it will work for you. We incorporate a variety of proven alternative therapies to complement traditional methods in order to achieve the highest rates of success for our patients. If you are experiencing persistent symptoms of PTSD or another mental health disorder, please contact our office to schedule an appointment.