What Is Eye Movement Desensitization And Reprocessing?

By BetterHelp Editorial Team|Updated June 28, 2022
CheckedMedically Reviewed By Lauren Guilbeault, LMHC

Content/Trigger Warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include sexual assault & violence which could potentially be triggering.

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR therapy) is a type of psychotherapy that was first introduced in the late 1980s for the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Its goal is to reduce symptoms of trauma by helping your brain “reprocess” disturbing memories as you recall them so you can remember the traumatic event or events without experiencing unpleasant symptoms. EMDR mimics the process your brain goes through during REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, which is believed to help the mind process information in a healthier manner. Keep reading to learn more about REM sleep and EMDR and find out if this novel approach could be beneficial for you.

What Is REM?

REM, or rapid eye movement, is a stage of sleep that makes up about a quarter of an adult’s sleep cycle. It involves the jerky movement of eyes, and research suggests that it is the stage at which most of us dream. It is also closely involved with memory formation and consolidation, learning, and mood regulation.

Imaging studies have revealed that the human brain is almost as active during REM sleep as it is when it’s awake. This stage is also typically marked by a faster, somewhat shallow breathing pattern that can become fast and inconsistent. Several lifestyle factors, such as drinking alcohol, using nicotine products, and not getting enough physical activity can negatively affect REM sleep.

Effects Of REM Sleep

REM sleep plays an important role in learning and information processing. For example, studies show that if someone is taught something before bed, they may not be able to recall the information as easily if they didn’t get enough REM sleep the night before or night of learning the information. Plus, animal studies reveal that having four days of REM sleep deprivation can alter critical structures in the brain and affect long-term memory processing and retrieval.

In infants, REM sleep is needed for brain development, and that is one of the reasons why a baby should get plenty of rest. Short-term effects of not getting enough REM sleep include:

  • Difficulty focusing during the day
  • Forgetfulness or poor memory
  • Fatigue and sleepiness
  • Irritability and mood swings

In the long run, not getting enough REM sleep can contribute to the development of:

  • Diabetes
  • Obesity
  • High blood pressure
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Anxiety
  • Depression

Now, let's look at REM as a form of therapy.

Eye Movement Desensitization And Reprocessing Therapy

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, or EMDR, is a somewhat newer form of therapy that has gained popularity over the past few decades. EMDR is primarily used to treat PTSD that can happen after a trauma. As it is still considered relatively new and not completely mainstream, it's a bit controversial, especially because of how it approaches the issue of trauma.

EMDR Therapy For Trauma

Most forms of counseling rely on talking, medication, or other forms of therapy such as mindfulness techniques, behavior modification, or journaling. EMDR uses rapid eye movements in addition to talk therapy to help treat a person experiencing negative thoughts or sensations from a past trauma. Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing uses the rhythmic movements of the eye, and the belief is that this can help someone treat the psychological and sometimes physical pain that is associated with trauma.

What To Expect

EMDR consists of eight structured phases:

  • Phase 1: History-taking
  • Phase 2: Preparing the client
  • Phase 3: Assessing the target memory
  • Phases 4-7: Processing the memory to adaptive resolution
  • Phase 8: Evaluating treatment results

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing sessions typically last anywhere from 45 minutes to a couple of hours. Before your first session, you will meet with a therapist to discuss your concerns and goals for the treatment, and they go over the entire process with you, pausing to allow you to ask any questions that you may have. It is very likely that you will have to discuss parts of your trauma during this exploratory phase. The next stage involves preparing yourself for treatment. During this phase, your therapist might teach you techniques to manage and cope with unwanted emotions and sensations. At the same time, you and your therapist will also decide which specific memories to target.

During the EMDR session itself, the therapist will ask you to focus on any negative thoughts, emotions, or sensations that arise from recalling the traumatic event. At the same time, the provider will perform repetitive motions or sounds, such as moving their fingers back and forth, tapping, or blinking lights. Then, you’ll be asked to empty your mind and notice any spontaneous thoughts or images that come up. As you identify them, the therapist will guide you towards separating the thought from unwanted emotions so that the next time you think about the event or memory, it doesn’t trigger unpleasant sensations or symptoms of PTSD.

Continuation Of The Session

As you recall the trauma, you'll likely be asked to think of more positive thoughts. The goal is to associate the treatment with the positive while weakening the negative emotions and reactions. The therapist will be monitoring how distressed you are at all times, and this can allow them to figure out how powerful the treatment can be and how best to progress or potentially alter the treatment path, such as lengthening or shortening EMDR sessions as needed.

Potential Dangers And Side Effects

Although EMDR is considered a safe therapy with few unwanted effects, it’s important to keep in mind that this approach focuses heavily on talking about and recalling traumatic events, which can bring up distressing feelings and emotions. Like other forms of psychotherapy, EMDR may cause certain side effects, such as:

  • Vivid dreams
  • Recurrent nightmares
  • Resurfacing of traumatic memories
  • Lightheadedness
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Heightened sensitivity

These effects usually go away on their own as the treatment progresses. If you become distressed during your sessions, your therapist will be there to help you move past the uncomfortable sensations and return to the present moment. One of the most important components of EMDR is feeling safe in the space you are in while the sessions take place. As such, it’s very important to consistently communicate how you are feeling throughout the sessions and let the therapist know if you need a break.

What Can EMDR Treat

While EMDR was developed as a treatment for PTSD, practitioners today use it for a variety of disorders with great success, including:

In some cases of concurrent conditions, EMDR may be able to be utilized to treat multiple conditions together, such as if you are experiencing PTSD in tandem with depression and anxiety.

Is EMDR Effective?

EMDR is considered a safe, non-invasive form of therapy. Experts still debate whether or not this approach is truly effective or not. Some studies have found promising results, while others have pointed out that the studies are too small to make a definitive assessment of its accuracy.

How Does EMDR Therapy Work?

Experts don’t yet know how EMDR therapy works exactly to change how your brain processes disturbing memories. One theory is that the repetitive sounds or images may help divert the attention away from the emotions associated with their PTSD. There are some principles EMDR borrows from, including prolonged exposure therapy, which is also used to treat PTSD. Other theories mention that EMDR therapy mimics the eye movements and brain functions involved during REM sleep, which helps to effectively process and store memories and information.

In Conclusion

Living with an unresolved trauma can take away from your quality of life. Fortunately, there are many ways to treat PTSD, including talk therapy, medication, coaching, exposure therapy, EMDR, and more.

If you're dealing with PTSD or another mental illness, a counselor can be able to help you. They can help by teaching you strategies to cope with triggers or self-defeating thoughts, helping you get to the root of specific issues, and much more. If you are experiencing any of these, or just want to improve your mental health, a licensed therapist can help.

EMDR can be conducted both in person and online, and research suggests that both methodologies can be equally effective when performed by an experienced provider. So if you’ve been thinking about giving it a try, speak with a BetterHelp therapist today. There are thousands of providers online right now waiting to help you get started down a path towards a happier, more balanced life!

Below are some commonly asked questions on this topic:

What is rapid eye movement treatment?
What are 3 stages of EMDR?
What are the 8 steps of EMDR?
Can you do rapid eye movement therapy on yourself?
Why is EMDR so controversial?
When should you not use EMDR?
How do you feel after EMDR session?
What is the success rate of EMDR?
How do I start EMDR?
How long does EMDR last?

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