EMDR Therapy: What is it, and how can it help with processing trauma?

Often, those who have experienced trauma struggle to find appropriate coping mechanisms to manage, reflect upon, and process their past trauma. For some, EMDR can be incredibly helpful.

EMDR stands for ‘Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing’. It is a psychotherapy treatment that aims to reduce distressing emotions that occur as a result of traumatic memories.

Who benefits from EMDR?

EMDR was developed by Francine Shapiro to assist clients exposed to traumatic events. It helps clients process trauma by using bilateral stimulation, right/left eye movement, or tactile stimulation, with the goal of activating cognitive processes to then release emotional experiences that are “trapped” or buried.

Although EMDR may be used for different mental health problems, it has been primarily used in trauma therapy.

EMDR therapy aims to empower clients to resolve their trauma with the help of a psychologist. Ultimately, the goal is to help you come to positive conclusions with guided support.

As iterated in this article, some such conclusions might include:

  • “It’s not my fault”
  • “I am worthy”
  • “I am safe now”

What role does the psychologist play in this?

The psychologist plays a key part in guiding the client and assisting where necessary. However, it’s ultimately the client who guides the process of tackling and reprocessing their trauma. Another key benefit of EMDR is that it empowers the client to feel that they can make meaningful changes themselves.

EMDR does not only treat trauma. It can also be used for any symptom related to memories of experiences in the past.

To treat anxiety and phobias, the memories of situations where the client has learned to fear something are addressed, reducing anxiety. Depressed clients very often struggle with guilt and shame over adverse experiences where they have failed, felt powerless or insignificant. Processing these memories relieves their guilt and shame and changes their core beliefs.

How does EMDR treatment work?

It can be incredibly traumatic for a person to revisit distressing or disturbing memories and discuss them in detail. A unique benefit of EMDR is that it’s not always necessary for the client to do so.

A psychologist may ask a surface-level question about the trauma, and the client can in turn provide a surface-level answer that doesn’t explicitly going into the event.

A psychologist can help the client to revisit the traumatic event(s) and surrounding thoughts and feelings, without having to explicitly convey what the event was to the psychologist.

EMDR involves consulting a trained psychologist over around 10-14 sessions. It’s a longer term process that goes through a variety of different stages.

After making an overview of the client’s traumatic memories, for example on a timeline, a selection of memories are chosen. The sessions generally involve eight steps (outlined here in more detail):

  1. History and treatment planning: The psychologist will discuss the client’s specific reason for coming and take a detailed history.
  2. Preparation: The psychologist will talk to the client about what they can expect from EMDR.
  3. Assessment: The client chooses an image in their mind that relates to the memory they wish to work on, and must identify any negative beliefs about themselves or associated with the event.
  4. Desensitisation: At this stage, the psychologist will either move their finger back and forth between the client’s eyes, lead the client in tapping, or deliver auditory tones, such as calming music, through headphones. All of these actions engage the same parts of the brain.
  5. Installation: The psychologist will then guide the client to replace the original negative belief or emotion with a positive one.
  6. Body scan: The client revisits the memory to identify any physical tension remaining in the body. When it no longer causes distress, the treatment is considered successful.
  7. Closure: If treatment was not fully successful this session, the psychologist provides the client with ways to seek relaxation and imagery exercises to do until the next session.
  8. Re-evaluation: In the next session, the psychologist and the client assess the previous session’s work and re-evaluate the treatment plan as required.

After EMDR treatment: What’s next?

Since therapy looks to improve a client’s future coping strategies when faced with traumatic events, at the end of the treatment the psychologist may ask the client to imagine a future challenge and how they would feel in that situation. If distressing emotions again arise, it may indicate that treatment should continue for a while more.

EMDR integrates traditional strategies of therapy with newer ones, ultimately aiming to provide access to feelings that have been repressed and empower you to better understand (and cope with) the past.

EMDR also provides a space where clients can freely experience emotion and learn to manage past traumatic events through the lens of sensory-rich scenes, rather than purely through therapeutic discussion.

Looking for trauma-informed counselling and psychologists?

At Clear Health Psychology, we have several psychologists with availability who are experienced in trauma counselling and can provide various strategies to help you learn ways to deal with your trauma so that you can live a happier life. Book your appointment today by calling (08) 6424 8177.

Liam Reilly

Liam is a General Registered Psychologist at Clear Health Psychology, as well as a member of the APS. He has experience with helping clients to find strategies to manage trauma-related conditions, stress and adjustment problems, self-esteem issues, and much more.

He values mindfulness and is particularly interested in the way mindfulness can increase personal resilience in stressful situations.

Find out more about Liam here or book an appointment with him at our Subiaco clinic by calling the number below.

Liam Reilly