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EMDR – A New Pathway to Relieving Issues Arising from Trauma


EMDR – A New Pathway to Relieving Issues Arising from Trauma


EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) is designed to relieve issues that arise from past trauma. It is a relatively new approach that is based neither on medications nor talk therapy. Although some health care professionals look at EMDR as nontraditional, it has been effective as an intervention in PTSD cases. It is a very extensively researched approach, and today, continuous research is being conducted to improve its application.


Cases Where EMDR Works Best

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing is becoming accepted as a treatment for individuals with PTSD and for persons with emotional and psychological issues stemming from different types of trauma. While PTSD is predominantly associated with soldiers who have traumatic experiences in the field, this condition can occur even for civilians who have never been exposed to war. Apart from combat, there are many examples of traumatic experiences. Rape, child abuse, burglary, mugging, and accidents can all trigger lasting symptoms that call for intervention.


The Principle behind EMDR

The human brain has a system for processing information, but this can be disrupted when an experience is intensely distressing. Normally, the brain is able to transform extremely negative experiences through adaptation; the brain creates neural connections within the individual’s memory networks so that the devastating emotions and the physical sensations that come with the experience are neutralized or eliminated.

In the case of PTSD, the event is so troubling the brain is unable to function as it should. The memory of the event is then stored in the individual’s memory networks along with the physical and psychological reactions that were present when the incident took place. These same reactions can be triggered by stimuli in the person’s current existence, and when this happens, all the emotions and sensations will surface. This is why veterans with PTSD can break into shivers or go into battle mode when they hear sounds similar to gunfire.

EMDR seeks to help the individual reprocess the traumatic experience so that the brain is able to let go of the negative emotions and reactions that no longer serve a purpose.


EMDR and the Brain’s Processes

During EMDR, an individual goes through eye movements that stimulate the brain’s processes during the rapid eye movement (R.E.M.) stage of sleep. Researchers believe that the eye movements during the R.E.M. stage help the brain transfer memories of events. In technical terms, episodic memories are transferred into the semantic memory networks. When this happens, the event is remembered but it is no longer clothed in negative reactions; these reactions are extracted.

A clear example of this is how women who go through childbirth are able to remember the experience later without the traumatic reactions, and they actually become willing to go through the process again. In this case, the memory of the birthing process has been transferred from the episodic to the semantic networks of the brain.


The Eight Phases of EMDR

It is important to note that EMDR therapy is standardized, and only licensed professionals are allowed to administer this eight phase process. EMDR consists of sessions that last 60 minutes or more. Usually, the therapist will need one or two initial sessions to acquire a good grasp of the client’s problem and to evaluate how appropriate EMDR would be as an intervention. The therapist explains what the EMDR process is, and once the therapist and the client agree to go into it, the actual therapy sessions will begin. EMDR may then be used as a stand-alone treatment or as an adjunct to standard counseling therapy.


Phase I: History and Treatment Plan

The first phase of the treatment is primarily devoted to the client’s history. This is where the client is able to talk about the problem and the triggers that bring about behaviors typical of people suffering from trauma. In turn, the therapist is able to understand the events that cause the client’s issues. It is during this phase that the therapist can see whether or not EMDR is appropriate for the client. If it is, the therapist then looks at how the process will proceed and begins to plan it. At this point, the client’s distressing memories have been discussed and are targeted for reprocessing.

Phase II: Preparation

During this phase, the clinician explains the EMDR process to the client and answers questions the client may have. The client may be oriented to skills that will help the therapy yield desired results. This phase is basically a preparation for future sessions where the technical aspects of EMDR will be used. Phase II sessions equips the client with relaxation techniques, guided imagery, and other tools to calm down so that, between sessions, they are able to manage emotions brought about by triggers.

Phase III: Assessment

Specific events are evaluated during Phase III, and these are tested to identify the emotions that they evoke. The client is asked to visualize the image that brings about memories of the traumatic event. Along with this, the client also describes the negative thoughts related to that image. The therapist then helps the client replace these negative thoughts with positive ones.

The therapist determines the level of disturbance the event causes in the client; usually the client is asked to rate just how disturbing these memories are on a scale of one to ten. The client is also told to pinpoint the part of the body stimulated by these traumatic memories.

Phase IV: Desensitization

During this stage, the therapist first asks the client to focus on the traumatic event. The therapist then applies bilateral stimulation so that the client goes into dual attention focus. As the client recalls the targeted event, the therapist provides stimulus in a variety of ways. The therapist might ask the client to follow an object as it travels across the client’s visual field. Some therapists will tap the client’s knees alternately, while some will use a pulsing light held in each hand.

This is done in 15 to 30 second intervals, and in between, the therapist helps the client form new, positive associations with the image.

Phase V: Installation

At this point, the client focuses on the traumatic event and, at the same time, thinks of new positive images while undergoing bilateral stimulation. These are the images that come from the preceding phase of the treatment. Phase V continues until the client is certain that these new positive images are fully installed.

Phase VI: Body Scan

The client again focuses on the traumatic event. This time, however, instead of undergoing bilateral stimulation, the client identifies the body part that becomes tense or uncomfortable when the event is recalled. These negative sensations become the target of bilateral stimulation sessions until these diminish.

Phase VII: Closure

The main concern of this phase is to stabilize the client through the use of different techniques to use when strong emotions, negative thoughts and unwanted images come up. In most cases, the client is taught how to keep a journal so that these incidents can be brought up and reprocessed in succeeding sections.

Phase VIII: Reevaluation

During this phase of the treatment, the effectiveness of the therapy is assessed. This involves identifying the level of tension experienced by the client when the traumatic event is brought to mind. The therapist also looks at any new issues that may be uncovered at this point. This is the time for evaluating just how well the client is able to manage between sessions. It is also the time for deciding if more work is needed on the old targets or if the client is ready to work on new ones.


A New Approach to Old Issues

EMDR is an approach that can help individuals who are suffering from past traumas, even when these took place decades ago. It is an approach that works with the memory networks of individuals so that what is in the past can cease creating so much pain in the present.


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    Specializes in: (Ages 3+) Children, Teens, Adults, Couples and Families. Anxiety, Depression, Grief and Loss, Mood Disorders, Trauma, Adjustments and Life Transitions, ADHD, Behavioral Issues, Parenting, Relationship Concerns, Self Esteem
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    Specializes in: (Ages 5+) Individuals, Adolescents, Adults, Couples, Children and Families. Attention Deficit, Oppositional Defiance, Behavioral Issues, Peer Relationships, Family Conflict, Depression, Anxiety, Parenting Anxiety, ADHD, Self-Esteem Issues, Family Conflict/Divorce, Marriage Counseling, Adjustment Disorders, Relationship Issues, Grief and Loss, Communication Skills, Behavioral Issues, Coping Skills, Mood Disorders, Parent Skill Building, Christian Counseling upon request
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  • Robin Caswell, MSW, LCSW

    Specializes in: (Ages 5+), Individuals, Adults, Anxiety, Depression, Grief, Loss, ADHD, ODD, Trauma/PTSD, LGBTQ, Self-Harm, Military Family Life, Mood Disorders, OCD, Phobias
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