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What is EMDR therapy? Is it right for me?

close up of a person's eye under a blue sky

By Nancy Bledsoe-Link, LPC, LCDC, EMDR-Trained

With so many different treatment modalities, it can be difficult to identify what these letters even mean, and even harder to determine what options might be best suited to your individual needs. EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, a type of psychotherapy initially developed by Francine Shapiro in 1987. Since then, EMDR has been studied extensively, and has been found to be an effective treatment modality for PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). EMDR is also being utilized to address a variety of other challenging mental health symptoms and psychiatric diagnoses and has gained significant recognition and popularity in recent years. There is a lot of information available including theories of how/why EMDR works, reviews of the research literature and efficacy for certain symptom resolution, as well as adaptations and variations of the modality based on presenting issues and needs. While this information is relevant and fascinating, it can be overwhelming to someone in need of support, therefore this article will focus on a simplified, basic overview. EMDR has eight phases of treatment and will begin like most therapies do: exploring a thorough history of the person seeking treatment and identification of treatment goals, including whether EMDR will be an appropriate modality based on the presenting concerns. Traumatic events, unresolved distress, and other challenges will be identified along with negative cognitions (also known as negative beliefs) that are causing present distress or challenges in your life. Prior to beginning reprocessing, the therapist will work with you to identify current resources and develop additional, specific resources to assist in navigating the EMDR treatment process. These resources will usually focus on self-regulation, safety, and grounding. Usually, you and the therapist will identify the most problematic negative cognition as well as a specific memory (or theme) associated with it. A key component of EMDR is the utilization of bilateral stimulation (lateral eye movements, audio tones, physical tapping, or special devices) to assist the brain in the reprocessing of traumatic memories or themes with the goal of reducing (and in many cases eliminating) distress and maladaptive symptoms. For many individuals, there are multiple negative cognitions or distressing memories to be reprocessed. For some, they find relief and resolution in a very short period of time. Therapists who provide EMDR treatment should be EMDR-Trained or EMDR-Certified and will also have a repertoire of other counseling techniques that they can utilize to support your growth and development, when necessary. Finding the right therapist and the right treatment modality can be challenging and overwhelming, but no matter what you are struggling with there is help and there is hope, and connecting with someone who can help you begin this journey is just a call away.