How EMDR Therapy Works To Help You Overcome Painful Experiences From Your Past

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What Is EMDR Therapy & How Does EMDR Therapy Work?
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How can EDMR help you?

What is EDMR therapy and how does EMDR therapy work?

If your therapist has just recommended EMDR therapy as a mental health treatment option for dealing with abuse or trauma, you're probably wondering, "What the heck is that?" 

EMDR is short for Eye Movement Desensitizing Reprocessing, and this type of therapy can help you heal from hurtful past experiences, so you can rewire your brain, move on and find happiness. 

Basically, EMDR is like REM sleep — the stage of sleep that your eyes move back and forth while you are dreaming. In just the same way that dreaming helps your brain make sense of the day and download information into your long-term memory, EMDR therapy can help you work through and process old memories or traumas.

In this way, EMDR therapy helps you overcome — and heal — your abusive or traumatic past.


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EMDR uses minor therapeutical movements, lights or even sounds to help you achieve this REM-type processing state. While you're in this state, a certified EMDR therapist will help you recall a traumatic experience in your life — and then guide you to overcome it using EMDR processing. 

EMDR therapy is designed to help you recognize your trauma, understand how it's affecting you, and move past it.

Here's a step-by-step guide for how EMDR therapy works:

1. First, your EMDR therapist will collect information about you and your symptoms.

Your therapist will ask you details about the traumatic experience that caused you to consider EMDR therapy as a treatment option. Be open and honest with your therapist, since it's his or her job to make sure you can stay in the present moment and tolerate any emotions that come up during your session.

2. Next, you will be asked to identify a soothing, calm, peaceful place.

It could be a real or imagined. It can be any place where you have a sense of wellbeing. Like the ocean beach or walking in a forest.

3. Then, your therapist will define your "target" that will be worked on using EMDR.

Your target includes four elments:

  • A mental picture or image that represents the worst part of a traumatic memory.
  • The feelings associated with the worst part of the image.
  • The body sensations associated with that image.
  • A negative belief about yourself that is associated with the image.

This approach can vary depending on your therapist and how they do EMDR, but the general intention at this phase of your treatment is to pinpoint the height of your traumatic memory, activate it, and readily be able to call it into your mind and body.

4. Your "target" with be processed with EMDR Bilateral Stimulation.

Bilateral stimulation simply means something will stimulate your body to sense from right to left.

Bilateral stimulation can be achieved through eye movement, like moving your eyes back and forth, watching a light bar, or the therapist’s fingers moving in front of your eyes. This can can also be done using handheld buzzers or auditory sounds that repetitively go back-and-forth, from right to left, during your EMDR treatment. 

Once the bilateral stimulation has started, your therapist will ask you to recall your target scene. Then, he or she will ask you to identify how much distress you experience in the scene — beginning, middle and end — on a scale from 0-10, with zero being no distress or intensity at all to 10 being the worst ever. 

When you have activated the target scene, your therapist will start the bilateral stimulation to process the hurtful scene. When you have activated the target scene, your therapist will start the bilateral stimulation to process the hurtful scene.

From time to time, your therapist may stop the therapy from time to time to check in with you and identify how the process is going. All you need to do is tell the therapist what you are experiencing. Are your feelings changing? Do you have any questions or concerns? Has the image changed? Is there another detail you now remember?

It's important that you tell your therapist the truth about your what you're experiencing, without editing. Because the more truthful you are, the better your therapist can help.

Your brain is what's doing the processing, and it will reveal to your therapist what needs to be healed.

5. You will then examine how you feel after experiencing Bilateral Stimulation.

After the processing has decreased the intensity and distress in the target scene, your therapist will ask you something like, "What do you know now that you didn’t know before?"

Thanks to EMDR therapy's use of bilateral stimulation as you process your traumatic past experience, your brain will help you discover amazing things like, "I can get my needs met," "I am not alone," "I am worthy," and so on. You might recognize these statements as positive affirmations.

Post-treatment, your brain can now access the truth of these statements and reduce the anxiety you feel in your body caused by years of pent-up stress related to your hurtful past. This stage is where you'll start to become aware of how EMDR therapy works to help you gain new insight and achieve inner peace.


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6. Next, notice how your body feels.

Your therapist will then ask you if there are any sensations left in your body. You answer either "yes" or "no."

If you say "yes," then the therapist may do more bilateral stimulation to help you process the sensation.

7. Lastly, end your session on a positive note.

Your therapist will warn you that your brain may continue to process, even after your EMDR therapy session is over. If you notice any new thoughts, memories, or dreams, you can journal your experiences and bring them to the next session. 

If you have any lingering questions questions, you may ask them and debrief what happened during the session. And if there is not enough time to finish processing, your therapist may have you store your remaining distress in an imaginary container, and leave it behind in their office.

This way, you can feel good about the work you did get through and leave your therapist's office with a sense of calm and peace.

8. Continue progress at your next EMDR therapy session.

At your following appointment, your therapist will check in with you about your experiences since the last session. You will also be asked to rate the intensity of the last EMDR session, which you processed.

Once the intensity remains gone, it means the EMDR session was successful and the process has worked to heal your past hurts!

If you are like most people who've suffered from trauma or abuse, this eight-step therapy process probably sounds like a bunch of hocus-pocus.

But EMDR therapy is a way to help the brain heal itself of old wounds. It allows you to work out your worries, so you no longer have to do mental gymnastics when your painful past has been triggered by something.

If you've tried traditional therapy, but still find you're reacting to the same traumatic experiences you were before, consider EMDR therapy. It can help rewire your brain and empower you to overcome past hurts, so you can find the happiness you deserve.


RELATED: 7 Reasons Going To Therapy Is Way Beter Than Talking To Your BFF


Teresa Maples-Zuvela MS LMHC CSAT EMDR therapist specializes in working with people to heal and mend trauma they have endured. She especially loves to educate and walk beside those who are eager to heal from the pain of betrayal trauma. Sign up for her online class today!