EMDR therapy is a structured form of psychotherapy that encourages the patient to briefly focus on a trauma trigger while simultaneously experiencing bilateral stimulation. This bilateral stimulation is most commonly in the form of guided lateral eye movements, but it can also include auditory or tactile stimulation.
The therapy is divided into eight distinct phases, each serving a unique purpose in the healing process:
Phase 1: History-Taking and Treatment Planning
In this initial phase, the therapist gathers information about the patient’s history and identifies potential target memories for EMDR therapy. The aim is to build a comprehensive treatment plan that addresses the patient’s specific needs.
Phase 2: Preparation
The therapist establishes trust and explains the EMDR process in depth. This phase may also involve teaching the patient some coping mechanisms for emotional distress, ensuring that they have a way to manage anxiety or other overwhelming feelings during the therapy.
Phase 3: Assessment
Here, the therapist helps the patient identify specific traumatic memories, along with any associated negative beliefs, emotions, and bodily sensations. These elements serve as the targets for the EMDR processing phases.
Phase 4: Desensitization
During this core phase, the therapist leads the patient in sets of eye movements (or other forms of bilateral stimulation) while the patient focuses on the traumatic memory and its associated elements. The idea is to enable the brain to reprocess the memory, diminishing its emotional charge.
Phase 5: Installation
The goal in this phase is to promote the adoption of positive beliefs to replace the negative ones previously associated with the traumatic memory. For example, a belief like “I am powerless” could be transformed into “I am in control.”
Phase 6: Body Scan
The therapist asks the patient to scan their body for any physical tension or discomfort. If such sensations are found, they become the focus of more bilateral stimulation to further integrate the traumatic memory.
Phase 7: Closure
At the end of each session, the therapist guides the patient back to a state of equilibrium, ensuring they leave feeling better than when they arrived. The coping mechanisms learned in Phase 2 may be employed here.
Phase 8: Reevaluation
This phase involves revisiting the traumatic memories and assessing the effectiveness of the therapy. If necessary, further sessions can be planned to continue the reprocessing.
The bilateral stimulation used in EMDR seems to facilitate the transfer of the traumatic memory from the amygdala (where emotional memories are stored) to the prefrontal cortex (where rational analysis occurs). This helps the patient integrate and make sense of the trauma, reducing its emotional impact and helping them move past it.