What is EMDR Trauma Treatment?
To start with –it’s a mouthful. EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing – a long name for one of the most powerful, researched, and effective forms of therapy for people struggling with trauma and PTSD.
Okay, so what’s an EMDR session like?
The first few (typically 3 or more) sessions of EMDR are going to be pretty similar to normal talk-therapy. This time is spent building our relationship, understanding the nature of the problem you’re here to work on, cultivating awareness of your body and mind, building resources, support systems, skills for self-soothing, and assessing if EMDR will be an appropriate treatment option. This is a crucial part of EMDR work! Traumas can feel terrifying and insurmountable; this is the work that builds the skills, strength, and confidence needed to safely face and process these moments. This is also the time for you to ask questions, express concerns, and get a better understanding of this powerful treatment. From here, we move on to re-processing.
The typical “reprocessing” session has a few parts. We start off by finding a ‘target’ for reprocessing. This starts by looking at what you’re struggling with today - recent symptoms or difficulties in life - and exploring similarities between them and other disturbing events in your past. Sometimes we focus on a recent event, but often the work is more effective when we can connect those recent events to other similar, earlier memories that act as the “root” of an issue. Then the reprocessing beings. I lead you sets of back and forth (think right-left-right-left) eye movements, or tapping back and forth on your knees or hands, creating what’s called dual-attention stimulation (DAS) of the brain – stimulating both sides of the brain. While we move through a brief set of this DAS, your only job is to notice whatever comes to mind without trying to control or change it. At the end of the set, you tell me what thought, feeling, or sensation came up most recently. Whatever came up becomes your new focus, and we continue more sets of DAS. Everybody experiences this portion of the process a little differently. For many it can include some intense emotions and physical sensations, but the outcome is usually the same – relief. We continue doing sets of dual-attention stimulation until the memory feels less disturbing, and then use DAS to further integrate the once-disturbing memory with new positive associations.
So how and why does it work?
When we experience a trauma, it overwhelms our brain. The brain panics and starts shutting down, including shutting down the part of the brain in charge of intellectual and complex processing (prefrontal cortex). The result is that this overwhelming memory is stored in a raw and unprocessed form in the brain and doesn’t get integrated into our memory timeline. This is why remembering a trauma can feel like you’re reliving it all over again – the images, sounds, smells and feelings haven’t changed or faded because they weren’t processed like other memories. DAS helps the brain to resume normal processing and reintegrate this memory in the larger memory stream. Research has shown literal changes in the neurological patterns of brain activation during DAS. In other words, we can actually see the changes as these traumatic events are getting “unstuck” and re-processed / integrated into the cognitive level of the brain! After a successful session people describe still being able to remember what happened, but it feels more distant and less disturbing.
How fast are we talking?
Typical sessions last 60 minutes, and factors like the type of problem, life circumstances, and amount of previous trauma are factors in determining how many treatment sessions are necessary. While some individuals may wish to continue in treatment for many sessions for further work, EMDR is generally considered one of the fastest therapies for trauma treatment. Clinicians have also reported success using EMDR to treat panic attacks, complicated grief, phobias, performance anxiety, impulsive behavior, and more.
You mentioned research?
Approximately 20 controlled studies (and more all the time!) have investigated EMDR, and consistently found that EMDR effectively decreases or eliminates the symptoms of post traumatic stress for most individuals.
EMDR is designated an effective and/or preferred trauma treatment modality by the American Psychiatric Association, World Health Organization, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and Department of Defense, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and more. It has shown to be effective in a variety of age groups, populations, and across cultures. Check out these websites for the latest clinical research: https://www.emdr.com/research-overview/ https://www.emdria.org/page/emdrarticles
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