What is EMDR Therapy?
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy is a one-on-one, highly interactive technique that helps you process and clear away psychologically stressful events and experiences.
Everyone experiences trauma in their lives. A helpful way to think about trauma is as something that happened to you that should
Great video explaining EMDR Therapy in a few minutes
not have happened, like bullying or abuse, or something that should have happened but didn’t, like not receiving enough love and support from your parents. When people hear the word ‘trauma’, they typically think of 'Big T' trauma that includes things like physical abuse, rape, war, big natural disaster, etc. But the vast majority of us experience 'Small T' trauma, like being teased in school, not being very good at sports, failing an exam, or having parents that were too busy. The problem with 'Small T' trauma is that it’s so common that people tend to think of it as a normal part of life that you just need to deal with. But if you experience lasting psychological effects that negatively affect your day-to-day, treating 'Small T' trauma with EMDR therapy will improve your quality of life. To use an analogy, even though sports injuries are common and normal, you would be better off seeing a physiotherapist for treatment rather than letting the injury heal on its own.
When talking about trauma and how EMDR treats it, we like to use an analogy of a Trauma Box. Think of it as a box that contains all your trauma (Big T and Small T). During an EMDR session you will recall your traumatic experiences while your therapist will direct your gaze (that’s the Eye Movement, or EM, in EMDR) from one side to the other to divert your attention. Diversion of attention will make reliving the traumatic experience less vivid and triggering, thus desensitizing you to it (that’s the D in EMDR). Over the course of the treatment you’ll also be able to reprocess the traumatic experience (that’s the R) so as to remove it completely from the Trauma Box.
That’s the biggest advantage of EMDR over other types of therapy. Its power lies in the fact that it tackles the root cause of the problem. Contrast that with other therapies that tend to just give you the tools for coping with the problem. To go back to our physical injury analogy, treating trauma with EMDR therapy is like going to physio and doing prescribed exercises to treat the original injury, as opposed to simply taking painkillers to numb the pain.
How EMDR Therapy Works
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing therapy consists of eight essential phases. It’s necessary to go through all the eight phases for the EMDR therapy to work successfully. EMDR should always be used within a comprehensive treatment plan and should never be attempted without proper education, training, preparation, and the opportunity for reevaluation. Normally EMDR appointments run 90 minutes. While it’s possible to do shorter appointments, since every session requires an opening and a closing (like bookends), the middle portion is considerably longer during a 90 minutes session. This allows you to progress faster and accomplish more in fewer sessions, costing you less in the end.
Below you’ll find a quick and easy to read explanation of the EMDR process. For a comprehensive explanation, please click here. Something to note: this is not always a linear process. We may move back and forth between phases.
Phase 1: History and Treatment Planning
You will start with an opportunity for you to share the reason which brings you to counselling and for your therapist to develop a plan on how to move forward together.
Phase 2: Preparation
Your therapist will teach you different techniques to help you deal with upsetting thoughts and feelings. They will also share more information about EMDR, such as the process, what to expect, how it works, and so on. This is the phase where you develop trust with your therapist.
Phase 3: Assessment
At this point we’ll select and target specific memories related to your reason for seeking counselling and all the underlying roots attached to it.
Phase 4 - 6: Desensitization, Installation, & Body Scan
This is where we work on the distressing memory targets set out in Phase 3. Your therapist will have you hold the negative thought, memory, or image in your mind while following their hand movement back and forth. Though it may sound strange, this process actually ‘digests’ the negative thought and so that it is no longer distressing for you.
Phase 7: Closure
When it’s time to wrap up our counselling session for the day (regardless of what phase you are in), your therapist will close the session in a way that feels nurturing for you. They may ask you to record your experience between sessions and try out the different techniques from Phase 2.
Phase 8: Reevaluation
In the final phase, the therapist checks in on what has changed between sessions. With this information, the therapist will make any necessary changes to the treatment plan.
For a more detailed description of the 8 phases of EMDR, you can read this.
Application of EMDR Therapy
EMDR therapy is shown to be an effective treatment for people who experienced psychologically stressful events, people suffering from traumatic memories, or those with a formal PTSD diagnosis. Since experience of psychological stress or trauma manifests in different ways, EMDR therapy may benefit you if you experience any of the following symptoms:
Recent and Past Trauma (car accident, divorce)
Pain relief, phantom limb pain
Only an EMDR therapist can assess whether EMDR is a right solution to what you are experiencing.
Effectiveness of EMDR
EMDR therapy has helped over a million individuals over the years. The validity and effectiveness of EMDR therapy has been established as a result of through research in clinical settings. EMDR therapy is recognized and recommended as a treatment for PTSD/Traumatic Experiences by:
Department of Defense (US)
Department of Veterans Affairs (US)
American Psychiatric Association
International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies
National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (UK)
Departments of Health in Israel and Northern Ireland
World Health Organization
Formal recommendations for clinical treatment of trauma are slow to evolve, but as more and more studies are done, more countries and organizations recognize and recommend EMDR therapy as treatment for trauma and PTSD. And as the body of supporting evidence grows, it's very challenging to dispute is the effectiveness of EMDR therapy as a treatment for traumatic memories and experiences.