EMDR: How Desensitization and Reprocessing Can Help Treat PTSD
EMDR doesn’t look or sound like traditional therapy. Rather than focusing on talk therapy methods or medication options, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing seeks to reorganize and process memories of traumatic experiences in order to make them less debilitating.
How it works
Based on the theory of Adaptive Information Processing (AIP), eye movement desensitization and reprocessing plays out across eight phases. Rather than focusing on emotional conversion or constructive reassociation of traumatic memories, EMDR therapy focuses on specific negative emotions and the memories they are connected to and attempts to change the way those memories are stored in the brain.
The eight phases allow a person to establish trust and security with the therapist and for the patient’s experiences and memories to be documented, analyzed and evaluated. Inadequate processing of past traumas correlates to PTSD symptoms, causing patients to relive traumatic experiences.
Once an assessment of the traumatic information is completed, the desensitization phase is conducted by using hand motions or auditory cues to stimulate eye movement while the patient recounts disturbing and/or painful experiences. After the patient is desensitized to the trauma of their experiences, positive and constructive cognitive associations can be built around the traumatic experiences through the use of the same eye-movement-oriented techniques.
The final phase of the treatment is a reevaluation of the patient’s psychological state.
How it helps
As with many alternatives to what some might consider traditional mental health procedures, there is some debate on the effectiveness of eye movement desensitization and reprocessing.
Many practitioners have added EMDR to their tool kit in treating post-traumatic stress disorder and have had positive results. Though analysis is promising, most research indicates a need for further study in order to understand exactly how and why EMDR therapy is effective.
A 2018 comparison conducted between eye movement desensitization and reprocessing and cognitive behavioral therapy in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder revealed that EMDR therapy is more effective in reducing PTSD symptoms, but that the two methods are equally effective in treating depression and related anxiety.
What to look for
Seeking out a new treatment for any health issue can be daunting. Particularly when related to traumatic events, it can be overwhelming and intimidating to think about recounting your experiences for medical onboarding or the early stages of treatment with a new clinician.
Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing can be practiced by various professionals, including psychiatrists, therapists, counselors, social workers and a range of others. Practitioners must be certified and follow guidelines created by the American Psychiatric Association, Department of Veteran Affairs, Department of Defense and others. Most organizations recognize that EMDR therapy can be effective in treating acute and chronic post-traumatic stress disorder for both military and non-military citizens.
Getting EMDR help
If you’re interested in this method of treatment, look for a medical or mental health professional with whom you can establish a sense of trust and confidence. This can be someone you’re already receiving treatment from or someone new. Regardless, make sure to ask about their experience with EMDR therapy and the results they’ve seen. A good care provider should be able to tell you how successful they hope to be with any treatment.
If you already have counseling or other therapeutic services to tap into, that’s great. If nothing else, your existing health support team should be able to provide a referral. Your healthcare provider may have access to an in-network provider of EMDR therapy or they may have to point you elsewhere. Either way, it’s better than starting with a random internet search.
Post-traumatic stress disorder is a serious condition that we still don’t fully understand. If you or someone you care about is experiencing PTSD symptoms, finding and acquiring adequate help can be the most challenging first step.
Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy is just one of the many treatment options available and may not be the right one for you. However, the more you know about your options, the better your chance of getting help and having a successful outcome.