EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) therapy has been around since the 1980s, and recent stories featuring several well-known media personalities have credited the technique with helping them heal from past trauma. In the news or out, EMDR is an evidence-based, extensively researched therapeutic modality that is commonly used by behavioral health specialists to help support clients’ recovery from past trauma. EMDR has proven particularly effective for those living with PTSD, and as the date draws nearer for US troops to pull out from Afghanistan, we’re focused on sharing vital resources and techniques that can help military families and their loved ones cope with the transition.
What Is EMDR?
In plain language, EMDR is an individual therapy technique aimed at helping people process trauma during therapy in a more detached way than talking about the event (which can be emotionally intense and often lead them to shut down). It had been thought that emotional pain from past trauma required a long time to heal. But studies have shown that our minds can mend from psychological trauma in a similar way that our bodies recover from physical trauma - and often in as little as 6 to 8 weeks, depending on the individual and their engagement in the program. In fact, one of the important benefits of EMDR is that by using this therapy, people can experience progress that normally can take years. In one study, 77% of combat veterans were free of PTSD symptoms in only 12 therapy sessions.
EMDR works in eight phases. The clinician first learns about the client’s history, while also helping them to create a sense of safety and awareness in the body. Key traumatic memories are identified and reprocessed. After the clinician has determined which memory to target first, they ask the client to hold different aspects of that memory in their mind while using their eyes to track the therapist’s hand as it moves back and forth. As this happens, internal associations arise and the client starts processing the memory and associated disruptive feelings. Once the memories are reprocessed in this way, the brain develops new neural pathways free from the associated negative emotion so that the traumatic memories do not cause the same repeated “fight, flight or freeze” survival response.
As the psychologist who originated EMDR, Dr. Francine Shapiro said, “unlike straight talk therapy, the insights clients gain in EMDR therapy result not so much from clinician’s interpretation, but from the client’s own accelerated intellectual and emotional processes.” The EMDR International Association has a more specific description of the eight phases here.
How Does EMDR Help Veterans Recover From PTSD?
It’s estimated that almost 4% of the general US population is affected by PTSD — a number that rises to 55% of those who have served in the military. A few months ago, we wrote about PTSD and how it negatively impacts the lives of those suffering from it. For example, remembering and reliving the initial trauma may cause problems at work or at home – triggering an out-of-perspective or inappropriate emotional response to everyday experiences. Individuals who have PTSD avoidance symptoms may do things like avoiding driving a car or visiting certain locations. Others may feel stressed and angry all the time and isolated from friends and family. Left untreated, PTSD can cause adverse impacts on relationships and work, and even dependence on drugs or alcohol.
EMDR therapy has been recognized as effective for PTSD in the treatment guidelines of the US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and the World Health Organization (WHO). EMDR treatment options for veterans range from intensive daily therapy sessions to weekly sessions. In multiple research studies, both frequencies were found to be equally effective, with a substantial decrease in PTSD symptoms ranging between 36% and 95%, depending on the framework of the study. As well, studies show that EMDR therapy can produce stable long-term effects for PTSD sufferers.
But how exactly does EMDR therapy reduce the symptoms of PTSD? As we wrote a few months ago in How Trauma Changes the Brain, stress responses are a protective part of our natural instincts. But in those diagnosed with PTSD, the distress from the trauma remains in the memory, and those upsetting thoughts and emotions can create an overwhelming feeling of being “back in that moment” - even if you are sitting safely at home.
EMDR therapy is thought to help improve the way the mind processes these memories, which can sometimes be too difficult to do by just talking about them. EMDR allows guided self-healing to happen in a natural way that has long-term benefits. Moving your eyes in a rhythmic back-and-forth motion in EMDR therapy, while recalling the trauma, causes shifts in the way that you experience that memory, and information from the past is allowed to finally process. Essentially, the experience is still remembered, but the protective need for the fight, flight, or freeze response related to the original event is resolved. In effect, EMDR is helping to ‘retrain the brain’.
"EMDR is like a key that can help unlock the memory doors in our brain that have been closed to protect us. It allows an unobstructed path forward for the brain to find a place where it can fully process these harmful memories and begin to heal itself. As clients work through the process of EMDR therapy they are transforming themselves from the inside out and learning how to effectively process traumatic memories in a safe and self-affirming way."
— Jodie Nierintz LMFT, Telemynd Director Clinical Operations
If You Or A Loved One Has Been Diagnosed With PTSD, Consider EMDR Therapy
Many behavioral health therapists offer EMDR therapy. Look for therapists who are EMDR-certified. Among other requirements, EMDR certification requires 20 hours of training and 20 hours of clinical practice, 50 EMDR therapy sessions, and adherence to EMDR International Association policies. Telemynd supports veterans and their families, and many of our clinicians are EMDR-certified. Through our national partnership with TRICARE, we’re able to offer you and your beneficiaries access to licensed therapists or psychiatrists from the convenience and privacy of your own home. Request an appointment online or call our live support for assistance in scheduling care today!
EMDR International Association
Journal of EMDR Practice and Research
Journal of EMDR Practice and Research