When we experience a traumatic event, such as domestic violence, being involved in a severe accident or even prolonged trauma (such as childhood abuse), the memory systems in our brain very often store traumatic memories differently.
Due to the nature of adverse life experiences, the brain very often cannot process a traumatic memory in the heat of the moment, resulting in psychological distress for the individual in the future.
Post-traumatic stress disorder
According to trauma experts, when people do not ordinarily process traumatic or painful memories, such memories remain incomplete and can become ‘stuck’.
Thus, unprocessed traumatic memories can lead to mental disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Individuals are likely to re-experience painful or traumatic memories through triggers such as sights, smells, sounds, places or people.
Reliving traumatic events
This ’emotional re-experiencing’ can lead to profound psychological distress for the sufferer and other symptoms recognized as post-traumatic stress disorder.
Psychological trauma and PTSD symptoms
When traumatic memories remain unprocessed, it can often lead to a backlog of psychological symptoms and physical sensations.
Imagine, if you will, a swollen water pipe. The aim is to steadily release the line of any excess or unprocessed water to allow the system to function effectively.
Our brains work in much the same way, hence why trauma treatments such as EMDR (eye movement desensitization reprocessing) are proven to be the most effective.
What is EMDR?
Eye movement desensitization reprocessing (EMDR) is a trauma treatment and interactive psychotherapy technique to relieve emotional and psychological distress.
Broadly, an EMDR therapist guides you through the process by assisting you through a series of bilateral (side to side) eye movements.
During which time, you will get asked to recall a traumatic memory in small fragments until such memories no longer cause you distress.
While EMDR therapy was initially designed to treat PTSD and trauma, such treatment has also proven effective for other mental health conditions, particularly those linked to trauma.
Studies on the effectiveness of EMDR
Since EMDR therapy first got introduced in 1987, numerous research and studies have illustrated its effectiveness on traumatized patients.
For example, peer review studies conducted in 2014 revealed that EMDR therapy:
- helps ease somatic symptoms such as muscle tension and pain
- may be more effective and quicker in treating trauma than trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy
- can significantly reduce emotional distress after traumatic experiences
Desensitization and Reprocessing EMDR
While some might be sceptical about the process of EMDR, for example, some may find it difficult to believe that eye movement can somehow ease the tension and distress caused by traumatic memories.
However, the results very often speak for themselves.
It’s impossible to say why therapies like EMDR treatment work so well in relieving trauma symptoms.
However, experts believe that the act of recalling a traumatic memory while engaging in the process of bilateral eye movements may serve as a distraction and are less upsetting when people aren’t giving those memories their full attention (Ana Gotter and Crystal Raypole, January 2022).
What other mental health conditions does EMDR treat?
While EMDR therapy is recommended for those living with PTSD symptoms and traumatic memories, some data support EMDR’s effectiveness on other mental health conditions.
Other mental health conditions
Although the data is limited when it comes to how effective EMDR is in treating other mental health problems, some mental health professionals may recommend it for clients with:
- Anxiety disorders
- Depression symptoms
- Panic attacks or panic disorder
- Eating disorders
- Substance use disorders
- Acute stress disorder
- Chronic pain
Eye movement desensitization for other psychological and physical symptoms
Systematic reviews conducted in 2017 revealed that EMDR might also be effective for those with certain mental health conditions as well as a history of trauma; such conditions include:
- Bipolar disorder
- Low back pain
How does EMDR therapy work in a therapy setting?
Typically, EMDR is segmented into eight phases where patients attend multiple sessions.
The duration of EMDR treatment can be anywhere between 6 to 12 sessions, but more sessions might get needed.
Eight phases of reprocessing therapy
As mentioned, EMDR therapy comprises eight phases – which involve:
Phase 1 – Treatment planning and review of the history
During the first phase, the EMDR therapist will review a patient’s health history to understand the patient better, including any other mental disorders (such as depression or mood disorders).
The initial evaluation stage may also include a brief discussion of the patient’s trauma history and identifying any painful memories that need addressing.
Phase 2 – Preparation
In the second phase, the EMDR therapist will prepare the patient by teaching them adequate coping skills and stress management techniques such as mindfulness exercises and deep breathing.
Often referred to as ‘resourcing’, the therapist will help the patient manage any distressing symptoms or sensations that may come up during therapy with stress-reduction techniques (such as those mentioned above).
Phase 3 – Assessment
Phase 3 of EMDR treatment involves a therapist guiding the patient through the process of selecting a particular memory to target, as well as any other characteristics associated with the memory, such as:
- Intrusive images or thoughts
- Upsetting or unwanted beliefs
- Distressing emotions or painful physical sensations
Phases 4 – 7 – Treatment
During phase four, EMDR treatment begins; here, the EMDR therapist will use EMDR therapy techniques to address the traumatic/targeted memories.
The above process occurs in four stages:
This process involves focusing on a specific memory, image, or thought while, at the same time, the therapist guides you through bilateral stimulation (BLS).
This process may involve tapping, audio tones, eye movements, or blinking lights.
After a while, you may get asked to let your mind go blank as you focus on any thoughts, feelings or sensations that may come up spontaneously.
After your thoughts have gotten identified, the EMDR therapist may ask you to focus more intently on the thought or move onto another memory (in the instance where memory no longer induces unwanted feelings or emotions).
‘Installation’ involves installing a positive belief (or image) to replace the unwanted ones you identified while in phase 3.
The patient will focus on the new belief through a fresh repetition of bilateral stimulation.
#3. Body scan
The EMDR therapist asks the patient whether they experience any uncomfortable or painful sensations when recalling the targeted memory during a body scan.
If the patient reports any pain (or other uncomfortable sensations), the therapist will guide them through another round of bilateral stimulation.
At the end of each session, the therapist will review and explore the patient’s progress and suggest some relaxation techniques or other stress management strategies that help sustain recovery.
The last phase of EMDR therapy involves re-evaluation, which occurs at the beginning of each new session.
Typically, the therapist will review the memories addressed in the previous session.
If targeted memories still cause the patient distress, the therapist may decide to continue targeting them.
If such memories no longer cause upset, the therapist will likely move on to another memory or new targets.
Distressing life experiences
Broadly, EMDR therapy is a safe treatment option for trauma and multiple trauma victims.
Distressing memories can create myriad mental and physical health problems for those living with trauma; the negative emotions arising from PTSD can be challenging for trauma survivors.
Hence why treating symptoms is crucial for those living with such a condition.
Systematic literature review
Studies from the EMDR Research Foundation show that EMDR has been clinically validated by over 30 randomized, controlled studies (which is the gold standard for clinical studies).
The basic principles of EMDR work include a series of standardized protocols that incorporate elements from many different treatment approaches and has relieved psychological trauma for millions of people of all ages (John Riddle, medical researcher).
Healing from a traumatic event (or a series of traumatic events) involves targeting trauma’s psychological and physical symptoms.
Fortunately, EMDR therapists can help traumatized patients to do just that.
According to the author and medical researcher John Riddle, EMDR is based on the principle that symptoms occur when challenging events or traumatic experiences overwhelm the brain’s natural ability to heal and recover.
Thus, the healing process can be facilitated and completed through bilateral stimulation while the client is re-experiencing the trauma in the context of the safe environment of a therapist’s office (John Riddle, medical researcher).
If you think you might be experiencing trauma symptoms, perhaps it’s time to get in touch with one of our specialist’s at White River Manor who can help.