What Is EMDR Therapy And How Can It Improve Your Life?

In a welcome cultural twist, therapy is finally trending, and celebrities from Prince Harry to Sandra Bullock have shouted out EMDR therapy, per In Style. EMDR, which stands for eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, is a therapeutic treatment first conceived in 1987 by Dr. Francine Shapiro, per the EMDR Institute, Inc., and it has been making the rounds ever since, gaining popularity in the late '90s and early 2000s, according to The New York Times. The technique requires therapists or medical professionals to attain certification, but a range of provider types can practice it.

Traumatic memories often go unprocessed, becoming intertwined with physical symptoms such as anxiety or panic when they are re-triggered since the brain struggles to distinguish the present from the memory. EMDR is primarily associated with the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, though it's proven to have a range of other potential applications. If your insurance covers therapy, it may also include EMDR practitioners since the practice can be used to treat symptoms of depression, anxiety, panic attacks, and other conditions.

This therapy may sound complex, and it is a multi-session process, but the basic tenants of EMDR are based on how our brains function and process, or fail to process, traumatic events and how this affects our bodies' responses to our own memories. So, while you're finding the best therapist for you, how do you know if you should try out EMDR?

EMDR includes 8 key steps

You may have gone to talk therapy or be familiar with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). However, a comprehensive report in The Permanente Journal highlighted 24 studies on EMDR and found that seven out of ten indicated that EMDR helped patients more quickly than traditional talk therapy or CBT.

The first step, history-taking, is similar to the beginning of any therapeutic or psychiatric session; your provider will get to know you through a series of questions, and you'll work together to identify what you'd like to gain from treatment. Next, your provider will ensure you're prepared for the potential negative effects of EMDR, which may include vivid dreams and increased stress levels, though these should be resolved throughout your sessions, per Forbes. Next, an assessment creates a baseline for your positive and negative memories.

Psych Central posits that the next step, desensitization — incorporating bilateral stimulation, or BLS, by moving the eyes from side to side — allows you to access both sides of your brain: the right, which controls emotional responses, and the left, which engages in logical processing. However, desensitization can also be completed using stimuli like knee tapping, changing lights, or audio cues.

According to another scientific journal, Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools, EMDR stems from working memory theory: providing a physical distraction to split our attention so that we are less likely to experience an intense reaction to a painful memory. The following steps repeat and expand on these goals.

What does it actually do?

By tackling unprocessed traumatic memories, we may be able to desensitize ourselves to them. In conjunction with the next step, installation, practitioners work to replace negative belief patterns with positive ones. Focusing on physical stimuli helps our bodies remain in the present instead of the past and may result in a lowered heart rate and physical relaxation, which can aid us in creating new beliefs around a painful memory.

EMDR isn't only good for your brain — it can relieve physical symptoms of trauma, including back pain, phantom limb pain, and migraines, per a 2017 review in Frontiers in Psychology. This makes sense since studies indicate that the body is capable of storing not only memories but their associated emotions, physical pain or discomfort, and beliefs they trigger.

You may have heard about body scans in a yoga class or while using a meditation app, but in EMDR, the practice is meant to locate any discomfort in the body when participants recall a painful or traumatic memory, per the review. During your body scans, until physical sensations improve, more rounds of desensitization and installation may be used to tackle the same memory.

In the closure step, therapists typically end EMDR sessions using relaxation techniques. They will likely begin the next session with reevaluation or analyzing progress and potential areas for improvement to measure the therapy's impact.

Though research on EMDR is still limited, its basic principles have also proven effective in practices like exposure therapy, in which patients remember and re-contextualize painful memories in a safe space, per Psychology Today.