Anyone can experience trauma. Whether it’s an abusive relationship, car accident, violent crime, freak accident, military service or other situation, our bodies and brains can be deeply affected by what we see and experience. Experts estimate that about 70 percent of American adults have experienced trauma, and 20 percent of these people go on to develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Trauma can manifest in PTSD, but it might also show up as depression, anxiety, panic attacks, insomnia and more. If you’re struggling to “get over” something, it can be incredibly frustrating. Sometimes all the talk therapy and prescription medication aren’t enough to help you make peace with life.
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy is a form of psychotherapy, often used for PTSD, trauma, anxiety and more. If you’ve tried everything and still struggle to deal with your trauma, it might just offer the results you need.
What is EMDR therapy—and is it legit?
EMDR therapy was developed in 1987. The idea is that when we go through a traumatic event, we have physical reactions that can overwhelm our brain’s ability to heal naturally. If you’ve ever been in a car accident, you’re probably familiar with how adrenaline and shock take over. This is the same idea. Our bodies and brains work to protect us, but they can also overwhelm us.
EMDR uses eight different phases to “reconnect” the patient with their trauma, in a safe and controlled environment. They might reexperience thoughts, images, physical sensations and more during the therapy. Using therapeutic techniques, the patient can reprocess the trauma in a healthy way.
So, is it legitimate? Yes. “84%-90% of single-trauma victims no longer have post-traumatic stress disorder after only three 90-minute sessions. Another study, funded by the HMO Kaiser Permanente, found that 100% of the single-trauma victims and 77% of multiple trauma victims no longer were diagnosed with PTSD after only six 50-minute sessions. In another study, 77% of combat veterans were free of PTSD in 12 sessions.”
The idea is that your brain can process trauma more easily when your attention is elsewhere—that is, when you’re performing the rapid eye movements. Your therapist will guide you through “reexperiencing” the trauma, which allows you to have those thoughts and memories without a strong emotional response.
What happens in an EMDR session?
As noted above, there are eight stages of EMDR. The first three stages all focus on determining what needs to be treated, preparing to cope with the emotional stress that will come up and deciding which specific memories you will focus upon.
In the next four stages, your therapist will guide you through these memories. They will have you move your eyes back and forth rapidly, and may include other kinds of bilateral stimulation like gentle taps on your hands or knees. These movements might be guided by a device or video, or performed on your own. Once the physical stimulation is over, they’ll ask you to think about the memories and identify any thoughts or emotions that come up. You may go back and work on that memory again, or move on to another one.
The final stage of EMDR therapy is evaluation, where you and your therapist will talk about your progress. You may decide to continue treatment, or you may feel like you’re healed enough to continue on without it.
Are there any risks to EMDR?
EMDR will not harm you. However, it’s important to note that any time you’re dealing with trauma or PTSD, therapy can be quite difficult. You may feel “retraumatized” during the first couple of sessions, especially if the trauma is new.
You should also expect that the strong emotions and awareness may not end when the therapy session is over. You might feel light-headed and experience extremely vivid dreams. However, this is normal. Talk to your therapist if you have any specific concerns or are unsure that you can handle it.
Remember, anyone who tells you that any type of therapy is easy is either misinformed or untruthful. Tackling trauma and PTSD is hard work, and it will take multiple EMDR sessions to see progress. However, the results can be quite dramatic. Whether you’ve recently experienced the trauma or have been dealing with it for years, EMDR can give you a whole new lease on life. If you want to try this reprocessing technique, talk to your therapist and ask for a referral.