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EMDR: a therapy for trauma



Therapy isn’t one-size-fits-all, that’s why there are lots of different types of therapeutic approaches and orientations to address individual mental health needs. After all, we’re not one-size-fits-all, either. When it’s time to reach out for therapy, it’s important to know what types of therapy might work best for what we need. If you’ve suffered trauma, let’s take a look at one, in particular, that might prove useful for you.


One therapeutic approach to trauma that results in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), anxiety, panic disorders, and other similar mental health concerns, is called Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR, for short). First developed in 1987, it’s an interactive psychotherapy technique used to relieve psychological stress, and It’s thought to be particularly effective for those who struggle to talk about their past experiences.


Healthline explains that during EMDR therapy sessions, you relive traumatic or triggering experiences in brief doses while the therapist directs your eye movements. EMDR is thought to be effective because recalling distressing events is often less emotionally upsetting when your attention is diverted. This allows you to be exposed to the memories or thoughts without having a strong psychological response. Over time, this technique is believed to reduce the impact that the memories or thoughts have on you.


EMDR therapy operates on the way in which our minds store memories. Trauma that lingers from past disturbing experiences can continue to cause distress because the memory was not adequately processed. The American Psychological Association explains that these unprocessed memories are understood to contain the emotions, thoughts, beliefs and physical sensations that occurred at the time of the event. When the memories are triggered, these stored disturbing components are experienced once again and cause the symptoms of PTSD and/or other disorders.


Unlike other treatments that focus on directly altering the emotions, thoughts, and responses resulting from traumatic experiences, EMDR therapy focuses directly on the memory itself and is intended to modify the way that the memory is stored in the brain.


This type of therapy is typically delivered one to two times per week for a total of 6-12 sessions, although some people benefit from fewer sessions.

It’s an 8-phase strategy, and Processing of a specific memory is generally completed within one to three sessions. The APA details the phases as follows:

Phase 1: History-taking

Phase 2: Preparing the client

Phase 3: Assessing the target memory

Phases 4-7: Processing the memory to adaptive resolution

Phase 8: Evaluating treatment results


Sessions incorporate the use of eye movements and other forms of rhythmic left-right (bilateral) stimulation (e.g., tones or taps). While clients briefly focus on the trauma memory and simultaneously experience bilateral stimulation (BLS), the vividness and emotion of the memory are reduced. For this reason, EMDR therapy differs from other trauma-focused treatments in that it doesn’t include extended exposure to the distressing memory, detailed descriptions of the trauma, challenging of dysfunctional beliefs or homework assignments.


If you’re struggling with PTSD or other mental health concerns that arise from a traumatic experience, consider EMDR as a potentially good fit for you - especially if you’ve tried other types of therapy that haven’t quite hit the mark.


At reflect, we believe that mental health is the crisis of our generation, and we’re committed to helping you find the right fit for you and your unique needs. If you’re in the Bay Area and looking to connect with a quality therapist, click here to get matched.