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What is EMDR Therapy, and How Does it Work?

By Cara McLeod MA, LPC, EMDR-Trained Clinician at Enterhealth

You can watch a webinar presentation hosted by Cara McLeod in which she goes over the details of how EMDR works, as well as how the brain processes memories and trauma, the connection to addiction, and more HERE. Simply click the ‘Register Now’ button to access the free recorded presentation.  

What is EMDR Therapy?

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, more commonly known as EMDR, is an effective psychotherapeutic technique that has helped an estimated 2 million people of all ages by relieving the symptoms of many types of psychological distress.

When a person is very upset, their brain does not process information normally. This means that remembering a traumatic event – no matter how long ago it happened – can feel as upsetting as the event itself. This distressing experience can overwhelm the brain’s natural ability to cope with emotional stress, which often leads the person to adopt harmful coping strategies (including flashbacks, insomnia, isolating behavior and self-medicating with drugs or alcohol). When treating someone for addiction to drugs or alcohol, EMDR helps to reprocess traumatic information so that the memory no longer triggers the types of coping mechanisms which may lead to a relapse from sobriety.

As traumatic memories are not processed normally, EMDR therapy allows the patient to access and reprocess these events to change the way the memory affects them both emotionally and physiologically. EMDR seems to do this by using eye movements to directly affect the way the brain processes information and commits it to memory. This allows the patient to become desensitized to the negative emotions associated with a traumatic event and reprocess those memories into something more positive.

What is EMDR therapy like?

During a session, the patient calls to mind the disturbing memory, along with the sensations such as what was felt, heard, thought, etc. and what views and beliefs they currently hold about the event and how it is connected to them. The therapist then facilitates bilateral or side-to-side movement of the eyes or other dual-attention stimulation of the brain while the patient focuses on the memory. At this point, the therapist guides the patient to help them formulate and focus on positive beliefs about the memory and themselves while continuing the bilateral eye movements.  

The goal is to set up a learning state for the patient to replace negative thoughts from the event with positive beliefs about themselves. When this is achieved, the traumatic memory no longer distresses the patient or controls behavior. Sets of eye movements are continued until the memory becomes less unsettling and is associated with positive thoughts and beliefs about oneself (i.e., “I did the best I could”). During an EMDR session, the patient may experience intense emotions, but by the end of the session, most people report a significantly reduced level of disturbance.

Following a successful EMDR session, the brain returns to normal processing and the patient no longer feels like they are reliving the event when it is brought to mind. The patient still remembers what happened, but the memory is less disconcerting. While many types of therapy have similar goals, EMDR appears to do this by closely mimicking what happens naturally during sleep when the brain enters Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep.

Who can EMDR Therapy benefit?

Studies have shown that EMDR is an effective treatment for the following:

  • Addiction
  • Loss of a loved one
  • Post-traumatic stress
  • Overwhelming fears
  • Childhood trauma or abuse
  • Physical or sexual abuse
  • Eating disorders
  • Dissociative disorders
  • Body dysmorphic disorders
  • Low self-esteem
  • Relationship problems

The American Psychiatric Association, the World Health Organization, and the U.S. Departments of Veterans Affairs, Defense, and Health and Human Services recognize EMDR as an effective treatment for trauma.

Approximately 20 controlled studies have investigated the effects of EMDR therapy, and they have consistently found that EMDR effectively decreases or eliminates the symptoms of post-traumatic stress for the vast majority of patients. Additionally, patients often report improvement in other associated symptoms such as anxiety or grief. Research has also shown EMDR to be an efficient and rapid treatment.

Why Enterhealth Utilizes EMDR Therapy

The Enterhealth Outpatient Center of Excellence provides a medically based, comprehensive approach to the treatment of addiction. To achieve lasting recovery, all underlying causes of the addiction must be treated, including trauma. If trauma goes untreated, the reason behind one’s addiction persists, and true recovery remains out of reach. This is why EMDR therapy is an extremely effective form of treatment for patients suffering from drug or alcohol addiction and why it is so often a part of Enterhealth’s comprehensive treatment plans.

EMDR is a physiologically based therapy which helps heal people from the symptoms and emotional distress which result from negative life experiences. It allows them to process trauma they have experienced which helps promote resolution of the emotional disturbance. By using EMDR, therapists at Enterhealth help to free patients from distress caused by trauma, making recovery more attainable.

Enterhealth’s evidence-based program, created by a hand-picked team of addiction experts, is based on the latest National Institutes of Health research. Addiction-trained physicians, psychiatrists, nurses, and therapists deliver a personalized treatment plan for each patient.