What is EMDR Therapy and how does it work?

What is EMDR Therapy and how does it work? Eye movement desensitization reprocessing therapy is a behavioral health therapy technique originally created to help treat those who were suffering from trauma or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Today EMDR therapy is used to help treat mental health conditions that occur due to memories of distressing past events, unresolved traumatic and addiction. EMDR is a psychotherapy that can be very effective when under the guidance of clinicians with a high level of expertise in the field of treatment. Unlike traditional substance use disorder therapeutic methods, EMDR requires less talking about traumatizing and distressing events and focuses more on changing emotions, thoughts and behaviors associated with, or as a result of, unresolved past trauma. 

With a background of trees in a forest, four wooden blocks with the letters EMDR carved on each block represent elements of EMDR therapy.

Developed in the early 1980s by Francine Shapiro, Ph.D., Shapiro found eye movements seemed to help desensitize and alleviate the anxiety and distress associated with traumatic memories. As a fairly new psychiatric treatment method, EMDR is recognized by leading organizations such as the World Health Organization (WHO), the Department of Defense (DOD), and the American Psychiatric Association (APA). 

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How does EMDR Therapy work? Similar to the Adaptive Information Processing model, EMDR involves tracking eye movements in a specific pattern while simultaneously processing traumatic events. Typically our brain has a specific way it processes and recovering from events and memories. There is a three-way communication channel between the amygdala, which is the part of the brain the signals for stressful events or situations; the hippocampus, which is the part of the brain where we learn about and store memories of safety and danger; and then the prefrontal cortex, which is the part of the brain that analyzes and controls behaviors and emotions. In the event of a traumatic or distressing experience, the normal channel for processing and recovery becomes disrupted and disconnected, causing an inability for the brain to heal naturally. 

What is EMDR Therapy used for? When EMDR Therapy is introduced to the patient, the techniques allow the brain to resume its regular flow of functions and naturally heal. This fairly new type of therapy was designed to help patients reduce symptoms of anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, chronic pain, unresolved trauma and addiction. An individual treatment session can require a session one or two times per week with about six to twelve sessions. Compared to other therapies such as CBT and DBT, it can sometimes be more efficient and require fewer treatments. 

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There are typically eight phases patients will go through when participating in EMDR therapy.

  • Phase one is history taking and treatment planning. A full history and assessment of the patient is taken and together with the patient, the clinician will identify targets for treatment including past memories, current emotional triggers and goals for the future.
  • Phase two is preparation. Certified clinicians will explain all aspects of the treatments: the different procedures and components of therapy that patients can expect during each session.
  • Phase three is assessment. Treatment begins during this phase as patients begin to recall specific aspects of the distressing memory such as images and body sensations.
  • Phase four is desensitization. During this phase, the patient’s bilateral eye movements are tracked while being exposed to distressing and disturbing memories. 
  • Phase five is installation. Positive thoughts, emotions and behaviors are initiated and inserted into the specific memories being targeted and treated. 
  • Phase six is body scan. Patients will observe any physical responses of their body while engaging in the therapy.
  • Phase seven is closure. At the end of each session, the patient is brought back to a stable state of mind through self-control techniques they learned at the beginning of the session. 
  • Phase eight is reevaluation. Clinicians and patients evaluate the patient’s current psychological state to decide the effectiveness of treatment and if more or fewer treatment sessions are needed in the future. 

Since its inception, EMDR Therapy is not without controversy. However, experts say it is one of the most effective forms of treatment for those who suffer from PTSD and other trauma-related mental health conditions. 

Hotel California by the Sea is a substance use disorder and behavioral health provider that specializes in using EMDR Therapy as a form of treatment for those who suffer from co-occurring mental health disorders. Their unique treatment program that focuses on co-occurring mental health illnesses such as PTSD, anxiety, depression and others, helps individuals with trauma related to substance abuse and addiction. EMDR therapy in combination with other behavioral treatments such as CBT and DBT are highly effective methods for understanding the root causes of some addictions and mental disorders. Hotel California by the Sea addresses every aspect of a person’s addiction and offers individualized treatments to heal a person of their unresolved trauma and addictions.