When negative experiences occur in our lives, how we remember those experiences greatly affects our mental health and how we encounter the world around us. We can often feel trapped in the negative memories that situations have produced and find it difficult to move forward. Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy is a treatment that can help those who have had traumatic experiences make peace with their past.

What is EMDR?

The Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Institute, Inc. defines EMDR therapy as a type of psychotherapy created to “alleviate the distress associated with traumatic memories” by exploring negative emotional experiences in small doses while focusing on external stimuli, such as lateral eye movements, hand tapping and sound. EMDR therapy is built on the notion that when a traumatic event occurs, the mind naturally begins to heal itself and build resilience to move towards mental health. Unfortunately, sometimes mental blocks prevent an individual from processing negative situations, causing the individual to experience the negative emotional, mental and physical distress surrounding the traumatic event long after the event occurred.

The goal of EMDR treatment is to transform negative feelings and memories of a traumatic experience into positive ones so that the discomfort that was once associated with the traumatic experience is no longer felt. According to EMDR.com, EMDR therapy has been found to be very effective, with studies showing that 84% to 90% of single-trauma victims who have received the treatment no longer had post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms after three 90 minute sessions. Similar studies funded by Kaiser Permanente have shown that patients no longer showed symptoms of PTSD after six or twelve sessions (www.emdr.com). Though often associated with trauma survivors, EMDR has shown to be effective with various mental health conditions.

How Does EMDR Work?

EMDR treatment is broken down into eight phases. The first phase is used to collect information about the patient’s past. This can include information from before the onset of the issue being addressed in therapy. The therapist collaborates with the patient to use this information in creating a treatment plan to determine what will be the focus of the EMDR therapy.

Phase two is used to create coping skills during and in between EMDR sessions. Because the EMDR process is designed to create quicker results than basic talk therapy, it’s important that patients are equipped to manage triggers that may arise during the therapy process.

Phases three through six focus on applying EMDR techniques to a specific event. The patient is asked to visualize the event, identify a negative belief about themselves and identify the emotions and physical symptoms they feel when thinking about the event. EMDR techniques are applied as patients process the event until the negative emotions and feelings about the event start to decrease. They are then asked to apply a positive belief about the event in place of the negative belief they once had. External stimuli, such as lateral eye movements, hand tapping and sound tones, are incorporated to help reprogram mental processes while exploring past experiences.

Phase seven is about closure, logging triggers that may arise, and practicing coping skills established in phase two. Lastly, phase eight reviews progress that has been made throughout the treatment.

Why EMDR for Mental Health?

Though EMDR therapy has been used primarily for trauma victims, the treatment can be used for other mental health conditions as well. Reframing how the mind processes negative events can be beneficial for conditions such as depression and anxiety. EMDR allows the patient to explore the past, present and future; letting them have agency over past situations, applying coping skills to triggers that may arise in their present life, and looking to the future to better process situations that affect their mental health.

Some facilities at Discovery Mood & Anxiety Program offer EMDR therapy for conditions including, but not limited to, PTSD, depression, anxiety, mood disorders and eating disorders. We have therapists who specialize in EMDR psychotherapy. If you feel like EMDR would be beneficial for you, contact us to find locations where EMDR treatment is offered.

April Cox is a permanency specialist II at Professional Family Care Services in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. She is passionate about the mental health of individuals and families and prides her work on providing practical ways to promote mental health wellness. April has a BA in sociology and has worked as a therapeutic staff support, family-based counselor, and drug and alcohol counselor before transitioning to child welfare, where she helps foster children and foster families process past traumas. April is passionate about the arts and spends her evenings teaching dance classes to all ages.

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