When Prince Harry revealed that he has used EMDR, a type of therapy, to help him cope with the loss of his mother, the internet was buzzing. EMDR isn’t new, but it is gaining popularity for how it can help a patient process traumatic experiences.
According to the American Psychological Association, EMDR is Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing therapy. It originated in 1987, created to treat PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder). The premise is that a “past disturbing experience” creates symptoms due to “unprocessed memories” that “contain the emotions, thoughts, beliefs and physical sensations that occurred at the time of the event.” EMDR therapy “focuses directly on the memory, and is intended to change the way that memory is stored in the brain, thus reducing and eliminating the problematic symptoms.”
An EMDR therapist directs a patient to use eye movements and bilateral stimulation while the patient “briefly focuses on the trauma memory.” If you’re confused by how in the world this actually helps, you aren’t alone. I spoke with Dr. Cassidy Freitas, a licensed marriage and family therapist and podcast host, about EMDR.
Dr. Freitas shared that when she first learned about EMDR, she admitted that it sounded a little “woo-woo.” However, she learned that EMDR is evidence-based, and not only can it help someone with trauma, but also “mood and anxiety disorders, low self-esteem, phobias, grief, loss, and more.” She also experienced EMDR first-hand after a traumatic birth experience. “I couldn’t believe how powerful it was, how empowering it was, and how quickly I was able to process and integrate experiences that could have taken months in therapy to process,” she shared.
What exactly is EMDR? Dr. Freitas says EMDR has eight structured phases that “taps into the body’s natural healing processes.” She provides the analogy of a broken arm. The arm is put into a cast and the patient is instructed to allow the healing to take place. “Our brain has a similar processing system that naturally moves toward healing and health, but sometimes it can become blocked or overwhelmed.” EMDR may be the answer.
Phase one of EMDR therapy involves finding an EMDR practitioner and being assessed for your “current triggers and struggles,” meaning, you’ll do some serious history-unpacking. The therapist also needs to decide if EMDR is a good choice for you.
During phase two, the therapist checks in with you to see if you have “tangible tools to help you regulate and manage difficult emotional experiences” which is important before beginning the work of reprocessing. These tools may include “mindfulness, visualizations, and stress-reduction techniques” that assist you in self-regulating, grounding, and reclaiming a “sense of agency.”
Phases three through six is the “deep work” of EMDR. The therapist helps you “identify a target to reprocess” which may or may not be your “earliest memory associated with the trigger.” The therapist helps you “identify the image, negative beliefs about yourself, physical sensations, and the emotions associated with this memory.” Dr. Freitas adds that you also will “identify the thoughts you’d prefer to believe about yourself.” Next up, the bilateral stimulation which can be eye movement, tones, buzzers, tapping that “stimulate a sensory experience of going from left to right, diagonal, or side to side.” This is similar to REM (that’s, rapid eye movement) when you are processing as you sleep.
She adds, “The beautiful thing about EMDR is that this processing is happening while you’re awake and in control, and with the support and presence of a licensed professional.” After this, you enter phase seven, when your therapist ends the session while also offering guidance, reminders about regulation tools, and discussion of “tracking any insights that occur between sessions.”
Phase eight is a progress-check. Dr. Freitas shares that when a client “no longer reports disturbance, truly believes the positive beliefs about themselves that they initially had identified, and has no uncomfortable physical sensations when thinking about the targeted traumatic experience or memory” that’s when she knows “the work is coming to a close.”
If you still have reservations, here’s what you need to know. Dr. Freitas told us, EMDR is an evidence-based treatment, it’s not hypnosis, and it is not a quick-fix gimmick. EMDR requires a highly trained professional who will not force you into anything, and EMDR can help a variety of struggles, including fertility issues, anxiety and depression, phobias, and more.
There’s also a major upside. Talk therapy can take many, many sessions, while EMDR gets right to our “brain and body that holds trauma and painful experiences.” This isn’t to say that EMDR is the gold standard in therapy. Dr. Freitas shares that talk therapy can be beneficial, as can other types of therapies.
She adds that her own EMDR experience was powerful. She went into therapy with the goal of processing her birth trauma and pregnancy loss, but was surprised when other situations in which she “felt ashamed, powerless, and scared” cropped up. Her “brain had connected them to each other.” EMDR with a trained therapist helped Dr. Freitas “feel regulated and safe while my brain finally had the space to process these events.”
Isn’t that what we all crave? Feeling safe and knowing we are regulated can make a world of difference in how we live.