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What is Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)?

One relatively new treatment for PTSD is Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). The therapy is especially valuable in dealing with the number of military personnel returning from active duty with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Some components of the therapy are used in desensitizing foster children and in conflict resolution where the conflict arises from emotional distress.

Defining EMDR

This is a therapy using specific eye movements, or alternately tapping or other movements, in conjunction with recall to lessen the trauma from a remembered incident. The movements are bilateral. Tapping, for instance, is done once or twice on the left side of a line and then on the right side. It is an individual therapy that is accomplished in as few as six or twelve sessions. The foundation of the therapy is the assumption that PTSD is caused by past experiences that continue to cause stress because the person did not adequately process them. These memories are composed of thoughts, emotions, and responses. When the stimulus, or memory, is introduced, the client experiences these stored responses again. EMDR focuses on the way the brain stores these memories to relieve the stress.

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The Procedure

The EMDR Institute says treatment is an eight-phase process. The first stage is history-taking. The client and the therapist identify the problematic memories, the current triggers and the goals of intervention. In the second phase, client preparation, the client practices the movements and the therapist ensures that there is adequate "safe-place" support for the client when the memories surface. Therapists also teach relaxation and self-soothing techniques to use during and between sessions. The third through the sixth phase is the actual procedure. Clients identify a particularly vivid image of the memory, isolate a negative feeling that the memory brings and then become aware of sensations and emotions present. The client also finds a positive belief connected to the memory. Clients are asked to rate the intensity of the sensations and emotions. During the introduction of the memory, the client focuses on the eye movements following the therapist's hand as it moves back and forth through the client field-of-vision or on taps over a bisecting line. Afterward, the client is told to let his mind go blank and then notice whatever sensation or emotion emerges. The therapist then uses the new thought or emotion to design the next pattern or focus. The procedure is repeated several times during a session. If the client becomes too upset, the therapist uses specific procedures to get him back on track. When the memory results in no stress to the client, the therapist asks him to think about the positive belief that he identified in phase three. Phase seven occurs after the session. The client keeps a log of his feelings or sensations when anything related to the memory comes to mind. The eighth phase occurs at the beginning of the next session when the client and the therapist assess the progress that was made in the prior meeting.

The Results

According to the EMDR Institute, eighty-four to ninety percent of single-trauma victims no longer had PTSD after three 90-minute treatments. Seventy-seven percent of combat victims were no longer diagnosed with PTSD after twelve sessions. Clients don't have to focus on the trauma for extended periods of time, reducing their anxiety. Additionally, unlike talk-therapy where the therapist introduces the healing procedure, the therapeutic nature of EMDR comes from the client's own perceptions. The traumatizing negative beliefs are replaced by the positive beliefs and that empowers the client.

Instead of months or years of therapy, EMDR accomplishes its goals in days or weeks. Instead of painful hours of recollection and talk therapy, the client spends minutes processing the memory. Instead of learning to deal with the negative issue, the Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing client transforms it into a positive message about his own resilience.

Source: American Psychological Association