The Science And Benefits Of EMDR Therapy

4 red rocks with the letters EMDR

Therapist Nancy RyanBy Nancy Ryan

Marriage and Family Therapist

Fair Oaks, California

October 21, 2020

The Science and Benefits of EMDR Therapy

What is EMDR?

EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. It is a type of psychotherapy that was initially developed in the late 1980s and has since become a popular method of treatment for psychological and emotional distress. EMDR therapy is a gentle and scientific approach to healing trauma that brings rapid and lasting relief and is considered a breakthrough therapy because of its simplicity.

an infographic explaining what emdr means

How Does EMDR Therapy Work?

When we experience a traumatic event, sometimes our brains don’t know how to effectively process the experience. The consequence is that we get “stuck” in the memory, unable to move forward in the present. EMDR helps the brain reprocess the information from the trauma – the sights, sounds, smells, images, and feelings – so that our brain can once again function normally in real-time. Although the memory remains, it will no longer be disturbing or debilitating.

EMDR is effective because it does two things. The first is that it “unlocks” the negative feelings and memories associated with the traumatic event which are stored in the nervous system. Second, it allows the brain to successfully reprocess them so they no longer have control in the present.

What Does Science Say?

Multiple independent and controlled studies show the use of EMDR is an effective treatment for trauma. The World Health Organization (WHO) and the American Psychiatric Association (APA) recommend it for people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and the Department of Veterans Affairs strongly recommends it as a treatment for PTSD as well. More and more, EMDR treatment is being used as a treatment for any place where someone feels “stuck” in the past. For example, for the treatment of chronic stress, anxiety, fear, phobias, grief, and even low self-esteem.

What are the Benefits?

EMDR effectively helps people process emotionally painful and traumatic experiences. In the short term, patients will likely experience the immediate relief of emotional distress. In the long-term, EMDR restores a person’s natural state of emotional functioning. For the vast majority of patients, after EMDR treatment, the memory of the event remains, but the negatively charged emotion associated with the event has been decreased, neutralized, or eliminated. In this way, EMDR takes away the control that traumatic memories have and restores the power choice and healthy functioning of the individual. For the majority of patients, the relief is immediate, and the results permanent.

What Does a Treatment Session Look Like?

EMDR therapy is an eight-step process that includes the therapist gaining an understanding of the event, developing a treatment plan, and helping the patient learn effective coping mechanisms. The therapist will assist the patient through all eight steps to ensure he or she is not retraumatized during the retelling and reliving process. EMDR is most effective when used in conjunction with other therapy modalities such as traditional talk therapy. During an EMDR session, therapist and patient will work together and go on a journey to release the stored emotions associated with a traumatic memory. The EMDR therapist will guide the patient to recall a traumatic memory and the thoughts, feelings, images, sights, sounds, and smells associated with it. As the patient remembers the event, he or she will be asked to focus on an external alternating bilateral stimulus (ABS), such as a light beam, tapping, audio stimulation, or a moving finger, all the while knowing that he or she is completely and totally safe in the present.

depiction of various emdr therapy methods

Rapidly moving the eyes back and forth (similar to what occurs during the REM phase of sleep) while processing an adverse event helps a person become less upset, which enables them to better work through the negative and “stuck” emotions. The process is repeated, and over time, the patient will replace the negative stored emotions with positive ones, such as “I did my best” and “I am a good person.” This enables the brain to successfully reprocess the event so that it no longer has control in the present.

How Do I Find Out More?

Many therapists are now offering EMDR therapy. If you are interested in further information about this treatment, look for a therapist that has completed an EMDRIA-approved EMDR training course with whom you feel safe and comfortable. The Relationship Therapy Center currently offers EMDR treatment in the Sacramento region.

About The Author

Therapist nancy RyanAfter 25+ years in the corporate world, Nancy Ryan, LMFT finished her Masters Degree in Psychology as a working adult and spent her part time hours working toward licensure. Fully licensed, she left the corporate world and made the transition to working in a private practice office. Years of her own personal growth, therapy and recovery have given Nancy an ability to fully relate with clients intuitively and use her experience and training to help clients . After building a thriving private practice, she launched the Relationship Therapy Center to help more people get the quality therapy they were looking for. Because the center specializes in couples, she went on to become the only Gottman Certified Therapist (an evidence-based couples counseling method) in the Sacramento area and all her staff also are trained in the Gottman Method.


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