Why is EMDR Therapy an Effective Treatment for Trauma?

Whether your scarring experience was recent or in the long distant past, treatment for trauma can help you heal and move forward. Many people associate trauma with individuals who have experienced a horrible accident, violent attack, or survived a natural disaster. However, any stressful experience that leaves you feeling frightened, isolated, or helpless can be traumatic.If those adjectives describe your emotions, you should not shy away from seeking treatment for trauma even if you think your situation “doesn’t count” because it doesn’t involve physical injury. Trauma is about the individual’s experience of an event or on-going stress and is not determined by objective facts.Treatment for trauma can take many forms. Cognitive-behavioral Therapy, psychopharmacotherapy, group therapy, Creative Arts Therapies, and even hypnosis have been shown to be effective for different cases. Another, fairly recent, type of treatment for trauma is called Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, or EMDR.Francine Shapiro, one of the “Cadre of Experts” of the American Psychological Association and Canadian Psychological Association Joint Initiative on Ethnopolitical Warfare, invented EMDR in 1987 when she realized eye movements decreased the negative emotion associated with disturbing memories. She developed a standard procedure to apply toward treatment for trauma by combining cognitive components to create therapeutic effects.When the first EMDR study was published in 1989, it showed that patients suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) saw significant improvement after only one session, while other methods took at least six sessions to show even moderate effects. While further research was still necessary at that time, EMDR has become increasingly effective over the years, thanks to improvements in research quality. Many and varied studies in the 1990s found EMDR to be a highly effective form of treatment for trauma.

Just what exactly is involved in EMDR and what makes it so effective?

EMDR is a multistage treatment for trauma that involves the following eight steps:

1. History gathering

2. Treatment planning

3. Patient preparation

4. Systematic assessment of trauma-relevant target(s)

5. Desensitization and reprocessing

6. Installation of alternate positive cognitions

7. Body scan for continuing discomfort or trouble spots

8. Closure

How does this all work? The theory behind this method of therapy is that all humans process information through an “adaptive information processing system” based on stored memories and networked images, sensations, emotions, and beliefs, almost like a computer. After a bad experience, our internal computers try to “adapt” by making a connection to explanatory information or positive beliefs. Under trauma, the human “processing system” gets a “bug” in it because the extremely negative feelings involved prevent the individual from making those adaptive connections that help us work through or “get over” unpleasant experiences.

EMDR is a way of reprogramming that processing system. One of the ways this is accomplished is through a procedure called “dual stimulation.” This involves exposure to past memories or present or anticipated triggers while focusing on a set of external stimulus like tones, taps, or, more commonly, bilateral eye movements. During this phase (corresponding to numbers 3 through 6: patient preparation, systematic assessment of trauma-relevant targets, and installation of alternate positive cognitions) the patient experiences new insights and associations. Thus the negative memories are connected to more adaptive beliefs so the individual can better process his or her experience.

Since this involves exposure therapy, the therapist will have already prepared the patient to use stress reducing techniques in part 2 (treatment planning).

Part 7, the body scan for continuing discomfort of trouble spots, requires the patient to keep a diary for a week in which he or she documents any related experiences that may occur. Phase 8, the closure phase, evaluates the results of all sessions. Since the goal of EMDR is to re-associate negative memories, if he or she needed to use any of the techniques from the planning stage (Part 2) during this phase, further Eye Movement Desensitization sessions would be helpful. After EMDR treatment, patients generally report eliminated or greatly decreased emotional stress.