How Does EMDR Therapy Work?
EMDR therapy aims to treat unprocessed, negative memories by addressing the past, present and future aspects of a targeted memory and combining them with guided eye movements.
Visual processing in the brain is extremely complex. Each eye has both a left and a right visual hemisphere that are processed independently by the corresponding opposite hemispheres of the brain. Once the images are processed in each hemisphere, the hemispheres work together to form a coherent picture that represents what our eyes see.
This interhemispheric communication activates working memory and visual exploration, and EMDR takes advantage of these activated brain states to simultaneously update evoked memories. The science underlying this process is still an area of active research, but substantial evidence supports that EMDR successfully updates negative memories with more positive ones. The answer to the question “Does EMDR therapy work?” is a resounding “yes.”
EMDR Side Effects
Because the client is asked to remember distressing events, EMDR therapy side effects may include high levels of emotional stress during or after a session. Some clients report experiencing unpleasant dreams relating to the memory they are working on processing, but these tend to subside as therapy continues.
Dangers of EMDR Therapy
As with any psychotherapy, EMDR requires that the client actively recall traumatic events. Fortunately, the dangers of EMDR therapy are minimal when done under the guidance of a licensed practitioner, but may include emotional distress, insomnia, nightmares, anxiety and depression. It is important that the client be aware of these potential dangers and discuss them with their therapist before and during treatment. Anti-anxiety medications may be appropriate for some clients during this time to ease the process.
EMDR therapy is made up of eight phases that address three psychological pathologies that are associated with negative or traumatic memories: past events, current situations and future challenges.
The eight phases of EMDR therapy are:
How EMDR Helps Treat Addiction
Treating addictions with EMDR therapy follows the standard eight-phase protocol, although minor modifications may be made on a case-by-case basis. Most people who struggle with a substance use disorder have negative associations that either lead to addiction or were caused by their addiction. For those who have a traumatic event that underlies their drug or alcohol use, EMDR therapy can serve to help them process the memories associated with the event.
Other individuals do not have specific traumatic events that contribute to their substance use disorder but have accumulated a number of profoundly uncomfortable memories associated with drug or alcohol use. EMDR can be used to address all of these situations by targeting memories that cause the client significant discomfort or emotional distress and reprocessing these memories into ones that are benign or even positive.