If you imagine sitting on a couch talking about your feelings with a therapist when someone asks you what therapy is, you’re not alone. And while 1:1 talk therapy has benefits, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy (EMDR) treats trauma and other mental health conditions differently. It involves moving your eyes in specified movements while encouraging you to focus on distressing memories and thoughts. So, if you’re open to receiving a treatment that yields powerful results, this article is your guide to EMDR therapy for beginners to help you get started.
What Is EMDR Therapy?
EMDR, developed by psychologist Francine Shapiro in the late 1980s, is a breakthrough psychotherapy that changes how your brain stores traumatic memories and other distressing life experiences. By moving your eyes left to right (bilateral stimulation) while focusing on a traumatic memory, your brain bridges communication between both sides to change how your nervous system reacts to the trauma. Over time, repeated exposure to these memories with the resulting movements will lessen your emotional response.
What Is EMDR Therapy Used For?
While its primary use was initially for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), many clinical trials show EMDR is exceedingly effective in treating various disorders.
- Anxiety disorders
- Panic attacks
- Chronic pain
- Substance abuse
- Eating disorders
- Personality disorders
- Bipolar disorder
- Sleep disturbances
What Are the Benefits of EMDR Therapy?
Whether you are dealing with traumatic memories or anxiety, EMDR might be the best next step for you. Here are a few of its benefits:
1. Trauma recovery
The symptoms of a traumatic event can make it impossible to move on. For example, the triggers, vivid flashbacks, and insolation create a never-ending nightmare. But EMDR therapy encourages your brain to reorganize and heal those feelings, experiences, and triggers connected to your trauma so you can return to your life.
2. Enhanced memory
Because it involves directly working with the memory and awakening the brain, many patients report more vivid memories, sensory recall, and even better REM sleep – a bonus benefit.
3. Improves self-esteem
Our self-esteem is often affected by anxious thought patterns, distressing memories, and, of course, self-criticism. And while poor self-esteem is a symptom of depression and anxiety, anyone can feel tormented by ongoing self-doubt. Yet during your EMDR sessions, you learn how to boost your self-esteem and improve limiting beliefs by replacing them with positive ones.
4. Challenges negative thinking
We’ve all been there. One anxious thought leads to another, then another, and before you know it, you feel trapped in a never-ending thought spiral. But EMDR addresses fears and concerns, identifies the root, and helps you learn how to challenge intrusive thoughts to free you from anxiety.
5. Involves minimal talking
If you struggle to talk about your trauma or experiences, EMDR may be a helpful alternative. It strays away from typical 1:1 talking therapy and instead focuses on guiding you through eye movements while encouraging you to focus on your negative thoughts or memories. After the session, you can ask questions and discuss your experience.
6. Provides fast results
One of the best benefits of EMDR therapy for beginners is the fast results! Indeed, you don’t need years of sessions to see an improvement. In fact, while everyone is different, many patients see long-lasting effects within 5-8 weeks.
What Are the Risks of EMDR Therapy?
Like any form of treatment, the risks are present in EMDR because it involves revisiting distressing memories and experiences. But before you start, your therapist will discuss your background, goals, and expectations, including the possibility of any side effects.
- Vivid, intense dreams are a byproduct of your brain processing the session
- Intense emotions like agitation, crying, or feeling on edge may happen after a session but are temporary and improve with time
- Emotional sensitivity and vulnerability are common after reprocessing a traumatic memory
- Because our mind and body are one, healing trauma memories may create physical sensations like muscle tension, headaches, or nausea
How Does EMDR Therapy Work?
When you begin EMDR, depending on your individual response, you can expect to have one to two sessions a week for a total of six to twelve sessions. The sessions will cover eight phases to help you heal the thoughts, emotions, and triggers of your trauma or condition.
Like any therapy session, the first session involves exploring your history, for example, discussing your trauma or painful past experiences, including current symptoms and triggers. Then you and your therapist will create a treatment plan that includes your goals and any therapies you will receive in combination with EMDR.
Next, you’ll learn how EMDR works, including learning several coping methods to aid any emotional distress during and between sessions. For example, you may learn how to do progressive muscle relaxation, guided imagery or breathing techniques for anxiety to help you manage your emotions.
Phase 3 involves identifying a painful memory to use as a point of progression throughout treatment. To identify your response to this memory, your therapist will use diagnostic scales to assess the resulting imagery, your thoughts and beliefs, and emotions and body sensations. You’ll also identify a positive belief about the memory and rate its efficacy.
During treatment, you’ll focus on the memory from phase 3 while your therapist encourages you to perform eye movements, tactile taps, or auditory tones. After this step, you’ll discuss any arising thoughts, feelings, images, or emotions. However, if you’re still experiencing any distressing sensations, the therapist will use this as the focus for your next set. The process continues until your target memory no longer creates any further distress.
The goal of phase 5 is to install the positive belief identified in phase 3 with more stimulation sets to associate the target memory with your chosen belief.
6. Body scan
After, the therapist will ask about any physical responses or distress experienced while focusing on the target memory and positive belief. If you experience any tension, they will guide you through additional sets to aid your healing and remove stress.
This phase ends every session to discuss your progression and review coping strategies to manage your emotions until the following session. For example, you may receive homework to maintain progress through journaling, visualization, and other self-help techniques.
Lastly, the final phase involves reevaluating the effects of the treatment, your current mental state, memories resurfacing, and the efficacy of your self-help techniques between sessions. Additionally, if new distressing memories have arisen, you may begin working on these through stimulation sets to process and heal.
How to Choose an EMDR Therapist
If you’re interested in EMDR, here are a few tips for finding the best therapist for you.
- Assess your comfort level. The most important step to choosing the right EMDR therapist is comfort. Ask yourself, how do you feel around them? Safe, validated, and that your thoughts and opinions matter?
- Complete your research. You may need to do some digging beforehand to find a skilled therapist capable of healing your trauma. For example, ensure they carry an EMDR qualification, including other therapies to aid your healing. Depending on your condition, you may need EMDR plus cognitive behavior therapy to treat your anxiety, for example.
- What is their specialty? Not every therapist will fit your preferences or area of concern. For example, if you’re experiencing PTSD with depression, ask your therapist if they have experience treating both. While many are trained in PTSD, they may not be familiar with other conditions.
There you have it! Your go-to guide EMDR therapy for beginners. Wherever you are on your journey, please note that EMDR therapy is a wonderful choice to heal trauma, distressing thoughts, and painful memories. You are not alone, and help is out there.
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