Past traumatic or stressful experiences are often challenging to work through using standard therapy techniques. Just thinking or talking about traumatic experiences can trigger severe physical or emotional responses. However, leaving them unprocessed can cause mental and emotional issues that might threaten your continued recovery. To work through the trauma safely and systematically, you will need to use psychotherapy specifically designed for those kinds of highly emotional memories. One popular method is eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), which therapists often use to treat people diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), phobias, and anxiety.
In the 1980s, a psychologist discovered specific physical movements and external stimuli that can help desensitize the recall of stressful memories. Since then, therapists have been improving on the techniques used in this treatment using evidence-based results. EMDR is highly structured and is used by experts worldwide to manage conditions stemming from trauma. For some studies, in as little as three sessions, 84% of people diagnosed with PTSD experienced remission. Dozens of studies and clinical trials reflected the same consistent and high success rates.
The psychologist Francine Shapiro invented the technique in the 1980s, and because she wanted EMDR to be easy to learn and consistent, she developed very structured phases that therapists work through. Your therapist will walk you through eight phases, and although there might be slight variations based on where they became certified, each phase’s primary content remains the same.
Phase One: The therapist will ask clarifying questions about your history to get context and determine the best place to start. You will work together to develop a plan and create a prioritization sequence for the memories you will work through.
Phase Two: Your therapist will educate you more about the process, and they will teach you techniques to help you remain in control directly after sessions and in the period between sessions. You will learn more about how trauma affects the mind and body and how EMDR affects the brain.
Phase Three: Your therapist will help you identify which memories you will work on processing first. They will prompt you through detailed remembrances of particular past moments and have you detail how focusing on those events manifests through your body and senses. For example, they may ask, “do you find certain muscle groups tensing in response to the memory?” You will do this for several targeted memories.
Phase Four: You will work on specifically targeted memories using the EMDR treatment. You will process them while using bilateral stimulation by either moving your eyes left and right or being tapped alternately on the left and right. During this time, you will report any new sensations or thoughts that come up. Your therapist will walk you through several standardized exercises.
Phase Five: Your therapist will continue to help you process while encouraging you with positive messages and helping you reframe any disturbing thoughts.
Phase Six: You will specifically focus on how your body feels as you process the targeted memories.
Phase Seven: The therapist will ensure that you are in a safe headspace for ending the session if the memory is not fully processed.
Phase Eight: You will work together with your therapist to assess your overall progress. By this phase, a large portion of people will experience remission of their trauma-based symptoms.
Anyone who has not experienced or witnessed EMDR may have trouble picturing the technique. To provide more precise context on phases four through six, we have broken down the process into individual steps. Once your therapist has determined which memories to target and prepared for your EMDR session, they will do the following four steps:
No treatment has a 100% success rate, so you may find that it does not work for you. However, EMDR has an extraordinarily high and consistent efficacy rate as a therapy for trauma processing. Throughout each session, you and your therapist will be assessing your progress. Your therapist may choose to make adaptations over time to help you focus and increase the odds of a successful outcome.