EMDR for PTSD: What to Expect

EMDR for PTSD: What to Expect

If your brain doesn’t process a traumatic experience, it stays with you. Later, when a trigger causes disturbing memories of that trauma to surface, they can provoke the same upsetting and overwhelming emotions you felt when the trauma first occurred. 

This unstoppable “instant replay” is all too familiar for people who live with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). But there’s hope. Our seasoned trauma experts at EXIS Recovery Inc. in West Los Angeles can help you overcome PTSD. 

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy, an innovative, evidence-based trauma treatment, can help you reclaim your mental health and start living life on your own terms. 

What is EMDR therapy?

EMDR therapy uses bilateral stimulation — usually in the form of rapid side-to-side eye movements, but sometimes in the form of rhythmic tapping — to help your brain process and integrate traumatic memories, effectively diminishing their power over your emotions. 

Stress and anxiety responses are part of your natural fight, flight, or freeze instincts. But when distress from a traumatizing event remains, the unsettling memories can trigger overwhelming feelings that take you right back to that moment. Those PTSD symptoms are a product of the insufficient processing and integration of traumatic memories: sensory, cognitive, and mood. 

EMDR therapy helps your brain process traumatic memories so healing can occur. The memories are still there, but they no longer trigger the fight, flight, or freeze response that was created by the original trauma.

What is EMDR therapy like?

EMDR is an individual, short-term psychotherapy, conducted one or two times per week, usually for a total of 6-12 sessions in eight structured phases: 

Phase 1: History and planning

Before EMDR can begin, our EXIS therapist gathers your full history and confirms your eligibility for the treatment. You work together to identify your treatment targets, from traumatic memories and current triggers to long-term recovery goals.  

Phase 2: Preparation

During phase 2, your therapist explains EMDR in detail and coaches you through an exercise where you can practice the eye movements and/or another bilateral stimulation method.

Phase 3: Target memory assessment

In the third phase, you activate the traumatic memory you wish to target by identifying and assessing each element of the memory: images, thoughts, body sensations, and mood. Your therapist uses rating scales to measure your cognition and emotion as you assess the target memory; these same rating scales are also used to evaluate your cognitive changes as the therapy progresses. 

Phases 4-7: Memory processing and resolution

During the fourth phase of EMDR therapy (desensitization), you focus on the target memory while simultaneously engaging in eye movements or another form of bilateral stimulation. If your session involves rhythmic eye movements, your therapist simply moves an object back and forth as you follow the motion with your eyes.  

After you report any new thoughts or feelings you have, your therapist resets your treatment focus accordingly for the next brief bilateral stimulation set. This process continues until your target memory no longer causes distress.  

During the fifth phase of EMDR (installation), you work on strengthening your newly formed positive cognition response. In the sixth stage (body scan), you monitor your physical response as you think of both the targeted memory and your positive cognition response. If there are any residual signs of distress, you continue using bilateral stimulation to process it.   

Finally, in the seventh phase (closure), your EMDR session comes to an end. If the target memory wasn’t fully processed, your therapist gives you specific instructions and techniques to help you contain it until the next session. 

Phase 8: Evaluation of results

Conducted at the start of the next session, the re-evaluation phase assesses your current mental state, determines which treatment effects have remained since the prior session, and looks for new memories that may have emerged in the meantime. 

If you haven’t fully integrated your target memory — or if you have a different traumatic memory to target — you go back to the third phase and begin the process anew. 

Is EMDR therapy right for me?

EMDR therapy can be an incredibly beneficial treatment tool for most people who suffer from PTSD or live with unresolved trauma. And unlike conventional psychotherapy, you don’t necessarily have to use a lot of language to articulate your traumatic event, something many people find helpful.  

EMDR therapy isn’t suitable for everyone, however — trauma reprocessing can be too intense for people affected by certain conditions, including neurological impairments, psychotic disorders, or an unstable substance use disorder (SUD). 

If you’re ready to make the cognitive shift that will release you from your trauma, our team at EXIS Recovery can help. Call 424-244-3513 to reach our West Los Angeles office today, or click online to schedule a visit with one of our experienced trauma experts any time.

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