Q: How does EMDR work?
A: When someone experiences a stressful or scary life event, it can lead to the experience of intense emotions. The normal mode of coping with those emotions is to “stuff them”, “block them out”, “put on a mask”, etc. The only problem with these coping methods is that they do not work. Just like the dirty sock that is stuffed under the bed, emotions, and hurt doesn’t just disappear if we are not thinking about it.
EMDR is that everyone has an internal information processing system that helps them process the events in their lives. When a traumatic event occurs and the information with that event is not fully processed, then the thoughts, feelings, sensations, etc. get stored as they were experienced at the time of the event. EMDR is thought to allow unprocessed information from traumatic memories to be correctly processed.
What is known is that it is effective, and it is important that all the phases of EMDR are followed for the best outcomes. Research studies where some phases were omitted or all the procedures for EMDR were not followed found poor outcomes. This is important because it is necessary to complete all the phases of EMDR even if you have experienced significant improvements before finishing the entire treatment. It’s like needing to finish a course of antibiotics even when you’re feeling better after a few days.
Q: What types of issues does EMDR treat?
A: EMDR is an American Psychological Association approved best practice method to treat trauma resulting in PTSD.
Q: Does EMDR work?
A: Yes, it is an evidence-based treatment for trauma that’s likely to work. However, as with any medical treatment, there’s a chance it won’t. EMDR has been shown to be an effective treatment for trauma and PTSD. It has been designated as a first-line treatment for trauma and PTSD by the World Health Organization, American Psychiatric Association, and the Department of Veterans Affairs and Department of Defense.
Q: Will it be weird?
A: Yeah, maybe. In my experience, the “weird factor” for most people is the eye movements. A very important part of EMDR is a preparation process where we build trust together, we walk through the process of EMDR step by step, and build skills for you to feel more in control of your emotions. We also go through as much preparation and as many practices runs as it takes to feel comfortable. Remember, it’s only weird because it’s new. The preparation process typically helps dial back the weirdness and allows people to feel more comfortable with EMDR. Growth and change rarely happen inside our comfort zone. But if the weirdness factor persists we can match them with another evidence-based treatment for PTSD like, Cognitive Processing Therapy or Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, to continue treatment.
Q: How long does it take to see improvements?
A: It depends on each individual. Research has shown that a single trauma can be processed in 3 sessions in 80-90% of participants. My experience with EMDR has been that people with a single traumatic event typically process that event within a few sessions and achieve noticeable improvements.
Research on individuals who have experienced multiple traumas found that 80% of civilian trauma survivors no longer had PTSD after 6 sessions and a study of combat veterans found that 77% no longer had PTSD after 12 sessions. It typically takes more sessions when you have experienced multiple traumas or if there are other complicating factors involved (ex. dissociation, substance abuse, current safety issues).
Q: Will it require me to talk about past traumatic events?
A: Yup, kind of. I know you’re probably asking yourself, why would you dredge up those feelings instead of stuffing them deep down inside or ignoring them like I have been for years? People are often hesitant to talk about their past trauma in detail, for good reason. It was a very painful event, sometimes the most painful event of their lives.
EMDR does NOT require someone to continually talk about their trauma in detail repeatedly. There is also no homework related to reviewing the details of your trauma, like other forms of trauma therapy. EMDR does require you to bring images and memories of your trauma to mind during some sessions. This can feel scary but remember your therapist will prepare you by skill building for feeling more in control of your emotions before you ever attempt to go through the trauma. Your therapist will be there to guide you and make sure you don’t become completely overwhelmed. I often tell people that if it’s an airplane ride I’m going to make sure we have the least amount of turbulence that’s necessary. It’s like the train analogy: if you’re on a train and in a tunnel, you don’t stop. You move through the tunnel to the other side where safety lies. This can happen very quickly in EMDR therapy. The only way out is through.
Q: Do I have to do the eye movements? What in the heck is bilateral stimulation?
A: The short answer is no. There are other forms of bilateral stimulation that can be used but eye movements are the most common. Other forms of bilateral stimulation are tapping on the knees or hands, holding vibrating paddles, or listening to alternating sounds through headphones. Bilateral stimulation simply means sensory stimulation (ex. sight, sound, touch) that alternates from one side of the body to the other. It has a weird name but it’s gentle, some people even find it relaxing.
Q: How do I know if EMDR is right for me?
A: I feel this type of therapy takes a certain amount of curiosity and open-mindedness for it to be most beneficial. This type of therapy is not for everyone, but it has been helpful for many. Regardless of the type of therapy you choose, you deserve an opportunity to move forward. Know that you don’t have to do it alone.