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EMDR Therapy for PTSD and Trauma Victims

EMDR is therapy for trauma and, more specifically, EMDR treats PTSD.  Learn about how EMDR for PTSD works and how it can help trauma survivors on HealthyPlace.

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy is a useful trauma therapy and is a psychological treatment designed to alleviate the distress and anxiety that surrounds traumatic memories. In fact, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), who has studied trauma healing extensively, feels that high quality scientific evidence shows that EMDR has “significant benefit” in treating posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). EMDR therapy for PTSD has also been shown to be about as useful as exposure therapy, which is more commonly known.

It is believed that EMDR therapy assists trauma survivors to access and process traumatic memories while bringing together a positive resolution. Although EMDR does not appear to be a PTSD cure, the therapy is promising.

What Is EMDR Therapy for PTSD?

In EMDR treatment for PTSD, the therapist collaborates with the patient in order to:

  1. Access a disturbing image associated with the trauma
  2. Discuss the body sensations that occur for the patient in relationship to the disturbing image
  3. Identify a negative thought, belief or feeling (known as a “cognition”) that the patient “learned” from the trauma
  4. Identify a positive cognition that the patient wants to replace the negative one

The patient is then asked to keep the disturbing image, body sensations and negative cognition in mind while following the therapist’s finger with his or her eyes (known as “tracking”) while the finger moves back and forth in front of the patient. This lasts for about 20 seconds.

A single tracking session is not expected to reprocess a memory. Many tracking sessions may be needed for each component of a memory and several tracking sessions take place during each appointment.

Future tracking sessions have the patient concentrate on whatever changes or new associations with the trauma have occurred and focus on replacing the negative cognitions with the positive ones. Posttraumatic stress disorder EMDR sessions are continued until there are no new associations with the trauma.

Within each session, the patient will use self-rating scales to indicate the intensity of PTSD symptoms as well as the negative cognition and the acceptance of the new, positive cognition. These ratings are taken after each tracking session to show how effective the tracking sessions are.

Between EMDR sessions, the patient keeps a journal of any situations that provokes any PTSD symptoms as well as any related dreams or insights.

Eye Movements as a Part of EMDR Therapy for PTSD

While back and forth eye movement was the traditional way this therapy has been practiced, EMDR protocols also allow for left-right alternating tones or touches.

However, in studies looking at the eye movement component of EMDR therapy, it has not been shown that the alternating movement or focus is needed. These studies seem to indicate that the eye movement is not the critical component of EMDR.

Why Does PTSD Therapy EMDR Work?

Researchers suggest there are several ways that EMDR works to alleviate PTSD symptoms, much of which has to do with desensitization to the trauma as well as anxiety management, specifically, management of the sensations in the body associated with the trauma.

At its most basic level, EMDR:

  • Exposes the patient to trauma cues (like in exposure therapy)
  • Helps process the emotional responses to trauma
  • Creates a corrected and more rational view of the trauma and the effect the trauma has had on the patient’s cognitions
  • Encourages self-monitoring of feelings, thoughts and beliefs (like is done in cognitive behavioral therapy)
  • Helps to manage the physical response to trauma stimuli

No matter the specifics on how EMDR for PTSD works, what is known through many controlled studies is that it is effective at treating the symptoms that arise after a trauma.


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Last Updated: 30 August 2016
Reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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