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How EMDR-Trained Therapists Help You Find Freedom

by Feb 23, 2023

EMDR-trained therapists don’t have special powers, but there is something a little mystical about this form of therapy.

Most people don’t understand EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy) and the immense potential it holds for those struggling with trauma and deeply ingrained limiting beliefs.

In this guide, we’ll demystify the EMDR process step by step, and you can decide if you’re ready to try it.

EMDR Trauma Therapy Part 0: Purpose

The goal of EMDR trauma therapy is to help individuals process traumatic memories that prevent them from being their healthiest, happiest selves. It’s about truly leaving the past in the past.

EMDR is well-established, evidence based, and highly effective. And as we’ll see, it’s not like most therapies.

You may have heard that EMDR works quickly, and that people report feeling almost instant relief from traumatic memories in some cases. 

There is truth to this, however, speed is not the goal in EMDR. Much time is spent evaluating and prepping a person’s psyche for processing the traumatic memories that hold them back.

The initial goal of every EMDR-trained therapist is to understand three aspects of their client:

  • The past events that led to their problematic beliefs.
  • The situations that cause distress in their life now.
  • The new skills and behaviors a client needs to learn that will be most beneficial for their well-being.

Once the therapist understands the patient’s needs well enough, they focus on establishing a trusting relationship and making sure the patient understands that they can express any feelings they have throughout the EMDR process.

EMDR Trauma Therapy Part I — Personal History

Before you dive into treatment, an EMDR-trained therapist will get to know you.They will ask you what brought you into therapy, and address how to go about treating your specific needs.

They will ask you (without prompting you to be specific) what you believe about yourself, what you would like to change, the burdens you feel, and which memories may have led to those beliefs.

For example, if you tell your therapist that you don’t feel proud of who you are, they may ask you to identify a time in your past when you felt devalued. 

If you don’t feel comfortable giving details, you could just say something like “when I was around my mother.”

Finding the memories that most affect you can take time, but the secret is that you identify them not by what you think they must have been, but by how they make you feel. 

By letting your feelings direct you, your trauma will guide you back to moments from your past that you may have forgotten.

The memories you discover are designated as “targets.” You’ll address your target memories one at a time once the processing begins.

EMDR Trauma Therapy Part II — Prep

In the prep stage, that patient gets briefed on how the process is going to go, what they can expect, and most importantly, they are given resources and techniques for dealing with difficult moments.

Because EMDR involves drumming up what might be very difficult memories, it’s important that you learn some techniques for calming yourself down and staying present with uncomfortable feelings.

For example, EMDR therapists might have you establish a place that you can return to in your mind that calms you down.

You establish this calm zone using specific language and mental imagery. Your calm zone could be “watching the rain pouring out of a window in a quiet, dark room,” for example.

You can return to this place in your mind anytime you feel overwhelmed.

EMDR Trauma Therapy Part III — Assessment

In this stage, you start by choosing one of your memory targets and associating a specific mental image with it. Then, you then determine which of your negative self-beliefs are tied to that event.

Finally, you decide which positive belief you want to have instead, and that becomes your goal for that memory.

If your memory was an instance of abuse, the negative belief might be “I feel worthless,” or “I am helpless.” This is the stage where it becomes obvious intellectually that your negative beliefs aren’t true.

You know you aren’t worthless or helpless or unloveable, and you could probably make a list of reasons why.

But what EMDR reveals is that it’s the negative feeling you get hitched up on. The body holds on to past traumas, and you find yourself getting stuck in beliefs from your distant past (usually from childhood)!

EMDR is about knowing emotionally that you have self-worth, not just mentally.

EMDR Trauma Therapy Part IV — Processing 

Finally, we arrive at EMDR processing, the most active stage of the therapy.

Going one target memory at a time, a trained EMDR therapist begins by having you do one of three physical acts to induce bilateral stimulation.

Bilateral stimulation is a mental relaxation technique that mimics REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep. It’s a direct way for your brain to become unstuck from old associations and old ways of thinking.

It’s interesting to note that during the REM sleep stage your dreams are at their most vivid. Because of this, EMDR processing can feel like you’re on the edge of a dream. It’s almost like opening a physical gateway to your subconscious for the purpose of reconsolidating memories (which is what occurs during REM sleep).

While holding a target memory in your mind, you might be asked to…

  • Watch your therapist move an object back and forth while you keep your eyes glued to it.
  • Listen to alternating tones in your left and right ear using headphones.
  • Perform a series of forehead taps.

Throughout the process, your therapist will ask you to gauge your physical and emotional states on a sliding scale, and you’ll examine how you feel before and after the process.

If everything has been properly addressed, you’ll find that memories that once disturbed you will be processed completely, and they will cease to hold you back.

EMDR Trauma Therapy Part V — Installation, Body Scan, and Closure

The later stages of EMDR therapy involve cultivating new beliefs after processing old memories.

  • Installation” refers to replacing old beliefs associated with traumatic memories (which have now been processed) with new, more accurate, positive beliefs.
  • Body Scan” is a revisiting of a processed memory to affirm that it does not cause significant distress to a patient anymore.
  • Closure is a step repeated in every session which ensures that the patient feels better leaving than they did going in. 

If a memory wasn’t fully processed in a session, the patient will guided back to a more stable emotional state before they leave.

Processing continues to occur subconsciously between EMDR sessions as well, so patients are encouraged to use the relaxation techniques taught to them outside of sessions.

EMDR Might Be Exactly What You Need

As we’ve seen, EMDR-trained therapists know how to get to the heart of things.

You need to be brave to do EMDR, as you’ll be facing disturbing memories from your past. But once those memories have been processed properly, you won’t have to carry the weight of trauma or negative self-belief. This is a robust, long-lasting kind of healing.

What could be more worthwhile?