Just as overeating can overwhelm our digestive systems and cause us to develop symptoms of indigestion, traumatic experiences can get “stuck” in our nervous system, leading to ongoing distress and negative emotions and beliefs. Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy helps individuals heal from the experiences that haunt them rather than simply learn to cope with them.
EMDR can be especially beneficial for adults with ADHD or comorbid conditions, such as anxiety, depression, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), because it targets underlying traumatic experiences (i.e., childhood abuse, shame, neglect, bullying, etc.) that may contribute to symptoms. The evidence-based therapy works by engaging several neurophysiological processes, which is a fancy way of saying that EMDR relies on the nervous system’s natural healing abilities to reprocess a distressing memory or experience, ultimately reducing or eliminating debilitating symptoms.1
The key component of EMDR is bilateral stimulation (BLS) — the therapy doesn’t work without it. BLS stimulates both sides of the brain through eye movements, tapping, or listening to alternating tones. It stimulates similar processes experienced during the rapid eye movement (REM) sleep phase, an essential part of memory consolidation. BLS “taxes” or “breaks” a targeted memory, making it hard for a client to focus on it causing the memory to lose its negative emotional charge. A client can still recall a negative memory just without the negative feelings.
How Does EMDR Work?
A misconception about EMDR is that it’s a magic bullet and will work seamlessly for everyone. That’s not true. The therapy takes time and preparation to work effectively. The client and therapist focus on building coping skills and a safe therapeutic relationship before identifying memories to target and treat using EMDR techniques.
In total, EMDR therapy consists of eight phases, including: 2,3
EMDR Phase 1: Client History
The therapist takes a detailed client history to identify their readiness and suitability for treatment.
EMDR Phase 2: Preparation
The therapist sets reasonable expectations and trains the client on various self-control techniques to maintain stability between and during the sessions.
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EMDR Phase 3: Assessment
The client and therapist jointly identify the target memory on which they will work.
EMDR Phase 4: Desensitization
The client uses BLS to change the targeted memory’s trauma-related sensory experiences and associations.
EMDR Phase 5: Installation
The client identifies the new positive statements and associations they hold about the experience, now that it’s resolved.
EMDR Phase 6: Body Scan
The client scans their body for any somatic response related to the targeted memory. If present, the therapist targets this body sensation for further processing.
EMDR Phase 7: Closure
The therapist explains what to expect between sessions and asks the client to record any disturbances experienced between sessions. The therapist also takes time to help relieve any distress from the session so the client feels regulated upon leaving the session.
EMDR Phase 8: Reassessment
The therapist evaluates the EMDR treatment’s effectiveness.
A typical EMDR session lasts one hour; however, some therapists offer intensive sessions for 90 minutes or several hours. It may take several sessions to process a targeted memory. Clients who have experienced complex trauma may need several months of EMDR therapy; clients who already have coping skills and aren’t afraid to feel emotions and body sensations may rapidly move through EMDR treatment in a few weeks. It depends on the client’s goals, the strength of their nervous system, and how many memories need to be processed.
After a successful EMDR session, my clients typically experience reduced distress and vividness associated with the negative memory and report that a previously difficult experience “no longer bothers them.” They also report reduced symptoms associated with the memory and more peace and joy in their lives.
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EMDR for Children
EMDR therapy is not only appropriate for adults. It is a child-friendly and developmentally appropriate therapy for children and adolescents. Therapists can tailor EMDR treatment to meet the needs of each child by using fun and engaging techniques, such as storytelling, drawing, and play therapy, to help children feel safe and comfortable while processing their traumas.
More importantly, EMDR therapy can help children with ADHD and comorbid conditions develop coping skills and strategies to manage their symptoms more effectively. For example, it can teach them relaxation techniques to reduce anxiety, improve their ability to focus and complete tasks, and help them develop healthy communication and relationship skills.
It is important to note that EMDR can be an overwhelming and vulnerable therapy; treatment should only occur with a trained EMDR professional — and only after both the professional and client are ready for it.
By helping individuals process and release negative emotions associated with traumatic experiences, EMDR therapy can alleviate anxiety, depression, and PTSD symptoms and even reduce some symptoms associated with ADHD. While EMDR will not alleviate an ADHD diagnosis, it can help those who struggle with ADHD symptoms live a happier, more productive life. EMDR helps clients to develop a more positive self-image, self-confidence, and live a better quality of life.
To find a licensed EMDR professional, visit emdria.org.
EMDR Therapy: Next Steps
Rebecca Kase, MSW, LCSW, RYT, a member of emdria.org, and an emdria-approved trainer and consultant.
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