Six of the Basics of EMDR

EMDR is a model of psychotherapy that focuses on the treatment of trauma. If you want to understand the principles on which it's based, read this article, in which we'll explain its basic concepts.
Six of the Basics of EMDR

Last update: 10 July, 2022

Traumatic events leave traces in the brain that require treatment to prevent them from having negative effects on health. In recent years, EMDR has become one of the preferred options for dealing with psychological trauma. However, it can often be difficult to understand. For that reason, we’ll explore six of the basics of EMDR.

Through the analysis of its fundamental bases, you’ll be able to better understand what this therapeutic model consists of. In addition, you can check in what situations it can be applied and what its degree of effectiveness is.

EMDR (Eye movement desensitization reprocessing)

Processing therapy and eye movement desensitization (EMDR) is a treatment for addressing trauma. Trauma is understood as any event in an individual’s life that threatens their physical and mental well-being. For example, a car accident, sexual violence, surviving a natural disaster, etc. Trauma also involves the effects of these kinds of events on their emotional life. Sometimes, these situations, due to the stress they generate, make them more vulnerable to post-traumatic stress.

As the name implies, EMDR harnesses eye movements as a means of opening a door to reprocessing the traumatic event. The patient allows their brain to desensitize itself to the memory of the situation. As a result, the symptoms that were derived from the event, such as stress, hypervigilance, depression, guilt, etc., are reduced. Each EMDR session typically lasts 30 minutes to an hour. The number of sessions will depend on the severity of the trauma. In certain cases, up to a year of treatment may be needed.

Is EMDR effective?

Before exploring the basic concepts of EMDR, it’s important to talk about its effectiveness in a therapeutic context. For some people, the idea of talking about their traumas while their therapist asks them to follow their fingers with their eyes may seem strange. However, research indicates that it’s a practice that can be extremely useful in certain conditions.

Wilson et al. (2018) published a systematic review on the use of EMDR in post-traumatic stress. They concluded that this therapy improves the diagnosis of post-traumatic stress and reduces its symptoms. It also alleviates other disturbances resulting from trauma and has been shown to be useful in various cultural settings. In addition, a study was conducted to assess how effective EMDR was in online therapy. While more research is still needed, the authors of this review say the results are ‘promising’. Similarly, they mention that EMDR seems to be the preferred option in online trauma psychotherapy (Lenferink, Meyerbröker & Boelen, 2020).

Six EMDR Basics

There are different basic concepts of EMDR that you need to understand if you want to know how it achieves the results we’ve been talking about. This therapy integrates elements that come from behavioral psychology, cognitive psychology, psychodynamic, and family therapy.

Trauma

In the theoretical framework of EMDR, trauma is information that comes from a stressful experience that’s stored in a dysfunctional way. When a person experiences this type of event, they save the memory of it at the time of the event. It becomes a kind of  ‘living’ memory of the experience.

For this reason, when the patient is exposed to similar situations, an intense emotional activation of anxiety and stress occurs. EMDR aims to help the patient reprocess this experience to desensitize it and integrate it with the rest of their normal memories.

Bilateral stimulation

In an EMDR session, the therapist asks the patient to narrate the traumatic experiences while following the professional’s fingers, seeking to stimulate both brain hemispheres at the same time. This process is known as bilateral stimulation and forms the basis of the therapy. In the same way, stimulation can also be done with sounds or physical touches.

Adaptive Information Processing Model (AIP)

Among the basic concepts of EMDR, AIP is one of the most important because it explains the underlying mechanisms of the therapy. According to this approach, our nervous system has resources to process the information of adverse experiences. However, when these events are really intense, the system falters and memory isn’t processed normally.

Observer position

As mentioned before, traumatic events aren’t processed like others and the memory is kept ‘alive’. Hence the fact that one of the symptoms of PTSD is flashbacks where sufferers ‘relive’ the trauma. For them, it’s like being back in the time and place of the trauma, feeling everything they experienced at the time.

In this sense, EMDR seeks to place the patient in the position of observer instead of being the victim. In other words, when they remember, they do it as if they were seeing the scene from afar and not as if they were living it again.

Desensitization

Another of the basic concepts of EMDR is the progressive loss of reactivity to stimuli associated with trauma. To better illustrate this, let’s imagine the hypothetical case of a person who was in a traffic accident and developed PTSD. From then on, the simple idea of getting into a vehicle or hearing a car horn may trigger their feelings of trauma.

EMDR seeks to make these stimuli stop producing the emotional activation of anxiety. This is known as desensitization and it occurs, thanks to the reprocessing of the experience.

Debate around EMDR

The American Psychological Association (APA) recognizes EMDR as an evidence-based treatment for PTSD. However, they stress that the available evidence is still being debated at a scientific level. As a matter of fact, some critics of this model consider it to be just another form of exposure therapy.

In spite of this, EMDR is still a recommended therapy for treating trauma. Therefore, it’s interesting to know its basic concepts thus gain a better understanding of the therapy overall.

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  • Lenferink, L. I. M., Meyerbröker, K., & Boelen, P. A. (2020). PTSD treatment in times of COVID-19: a systematic review of the effects of online EMDR. Psychiatry research, 293, 113438.
  • Wilson, G., Farrell, D., Barron, I., Hutchins, J., Whybrow, D., & Kiernan, M. D. (2018). The use of eye-movement desensitization reprocessing (EMDR) therapy in treating post-traumatic stress disorder—a systematic narrative review. Frontiers in psychology, 9, 923.