What To Know About Emerging EMDR Therapy For Processing Trauma

If you're a fan of "The Real Housewives," Oprah Winfrey, Prince Harry, or TikTok, you've probably heard of eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR). The newly recognized form of therapy, touted for its benefits in the treatment of common post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), symptoms including anger and social isolation. The method, which has been given the green light by the Veteran's Administration for the treatment of combat-related PTSD, was created over 30 years ago but has only recently started to receive mainstream media attention.

Psychiatrist Francine Shapiro, the founder of EMDR Institute, Inc., recalls how she stumbled upon what would later be coined EMDR when she was speaking about her own childhood trauma. She became aware of the fact that she tended to subconsciously move her eyes to distract herself while mentally reliving these traumatic experiences. When she decided to try consciously replicating the eye movement while recalling the memories, her PTSD symptoms rapidly declined, and EMDR was born. Now, here's what you need to know about the therapy before you decide whether it's a good fit for you.

Anatomy of an EMDR session

As described by the American Psychological Association's Clinical Practice Guideline to the Treatment of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, EMDR therapy includes eight phases. Unlike other types of therapy, it does not require any type of practice at home or outside of the sessions. The first three visits will involve informing your therapist of your history and identifying your most problematic memories, triggers, and symptoms, along with your goals for treatment. You'll also receive a thorough explanation of what to expect during the process. Typically, by the third visit, you'll be ready to begin accessing memories.

Each traumatic memory will be assessed using two official scales, as detailed by EMDR International Association. One measures the validity of cognition while the other measures subjective units of disturbance. These assessments will be based on your answers to your therapists' questions about your mental and physical experiences when recalling each traumatic memory. In subsequent sessions, you'll be instructed to revisit the memories while engaging in eye movements. When you've reached the eighth phase, you'll re-evaluate your reaction to the memories you identified at the beginning of the process and assess any new memories that have since emerged.

The effectiveness of EDMR therapy

There is no question that EMDR is effective at treating the symptoms of PTSD. In fact, scientific studies published by The Permanente Journal and Frontiers in Psychology have shown that it is not just as effective as other methods such as cognitive behavioral therapy, but rather more effective. The diminishing of symptoms is also considered to be rapid in comparison to more traditional methods of treatment, including anti-depressant medications.

There are questions, however, when it comes to the issue of why EMDR works so well. Since the mechanics of its success remain largely unexplained, critics such as University of Arkansas psychology professor Jeffrey Lore say that the treatment is nothing more than pseudoscience (via Newswise). This may be part of the reason why high-profile celebrities like Sandra Bullock are publicly sharing their EMDR experiences in defense of its effectiveness through popular outlets like "Red Table Talk." In this case, the science clearly backs the benefits of the therapy and virtually no negative side effects have been documented beyond those of revisiting painful memories. If you suffer from PTSD symptoms, there is no real reason not to give it a try and see for yourself.

If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health, please contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741, call the National Alliance on Mental Illness helpline at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264), or visit the National Institute of Mental Health website.