EMDR & Brain Health
By Anna McKenzie
What is EMDR? While “eye movement desensitization and reprocessing” is a mouthful, it’s really just an effective, low-impact form of therapy used for the treatment of conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and other mental health conditions.
The experience of trauma impacts the health of our brains. Due to life-threatening or chronically negative incidents, our survival impulse is triggered. Our bodies become activated to fight or flee. But the impact of these experiences can stay with us, and survival energy can sometimes become stuck in our bodies, creating imbalances in our emotional and nervous system responses. When trauma is unresolved, our brains continue triggering a survival reaction regardless of whether we continue to be exposed to life-threatening circumstances.
Symptoms of unresolved trauma include nightmares, intrusive negative thoughts, panic attacks, and anxiety that arises from reminders of the traumatic event or experience. Outbursts of anger, episodes of depression, chronic fatigue, and sleep issues are also common.
How does EMDR work in the brain?
EMDR therapy helps resolve the imbalances in the brain connected to traumatic experiences. Based on the science of rapid eye movement (REM) that our bodies do naturally when we sleep and dream, EMDR helps your brain to essentially reprogram itself and resolve painful elements of traumatic experiences. By allowing you to target painful memories and revise your thoughts and feelings, EMDR can help you to quiet the survival impulse triggers that disrupt your physical, mental, and emotional health.
Bilateral movements, similar to those that occur in REM sleep, help your brain detach from or unlearn old thinking and feeling patterns associated with certain memories.
Unlike talk therapy, where processing occurs mainly through conversation with a therapist, EMDR involves the use of bilateral stimulation: side-to-side eye movements, tapping, or audio tones. These bilateral movements, similar to those that occur in REM sleep, help your brain detach from or unlearn old thinking and feeling patterns associated with certain memories. Through the same process, you are also able to attach new thoughts and emotions to those memories that bring resolve instead of psychological distress.
EMDR therapy has eight phases, but treatment does not have to be ongoing or even long-term to be significantly effective. According to the EMDR Institute, Inc., here’s what happens during EMDR:
- Phases 1 to 3
Your therapist will assess the severity of your condition and where you are in the treatment process. You’ll learn some techniques for immediately coping with stressful feelings or thoughts when they occur. You’ll also be asked to target a specific memory that you want to resolve during your EMDR therapy.
- Phases 4 to 6
You’ll be asked to focus on your target memory and certain associations with that memory as you engage in bilateral stimulation. This could include wearing headphones and hearing audio tones in one ear, then the other, as you focus on specific thoughts and feelings tied to the memory. As the distress of the memory dissipates, you’ll be asked to replace the old associations with new associations (such as a positive belief about yourself).
- Phases 7 to 8
This is where you will evaluate the process with your therapist. You may be asked to keep a journal to record any other feelings or memories that arise during or after the EMDR process. You can talk to your therapist about how EMDR worked for you or what might still need to be resolved. Phases of EMDR can be repeated until the disturbing thoughts and feelings from trauma are resolved and replaced.
How Effective is EMDR for Trauma and Depression?
EMDR does not involve complicated technology, exposure to traumatic triggers, or any extensive retelling of the traumatic experience. It has also been known to be effective with only a small number of sessions. Generally, someone with a single trauma experience can be fully treated in under five hours of EMDR.
Seven out of 10 studies showed that EMDR was faster and more effective in treating trauma than trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).
A review of EMDR studies published in The Permanente Journal by the National Library of Medicine (NLM) revealed the following:
- Seven out of 10 studies showed that EMDR was faster and more effective in treating trauma than trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).
- In one study, 100% of people who had experienced a single trauma and 77% of those who had experienced multiple traumas no longer presented with PTSD after an average of six EMDR sessions (50 minutes each).
- Another study indicated that eight sessions of EMDR also outperformed eight weeks of treatment with fluoxetine, an SSRI antidepressant, in resolving symptoms of trauma and depression.
Does EMDR help with depression? Yes, it does. In one study involving people with long-term depression, seven out of eight participants had “clinically significant and statistically reliable” improvement in their depression thanks to EMDR treatment.
How to Get EMDR Treatment
If you’re suffering from life-disrupting mental health issues, EMDR may be a very helpful treatment option for you. Therapists who are trained in EMDR therapy can take you through the process during counseling sessions.
Here at The Meadows Outpatient Center, we provide EMDR therapy to help you resolve traumatic or triggering issues that come up as you live a life in recovery. EMDR is a low-impact way to engage in disabling life-disrupting thoughts and feelings that can hold you back or tempt you to self-medicate with substances. We offer a number of therapeutic options and community to help you heal as you engage in work and fulfill other life obligations. Contact us today to learn more about the EMDR therapy and full treatment program offered at our outpatient centers.