Rapid Eye Movement Therapy for PTSD


People who have suffered a significant emotional trauma can find themselves reliving that trauma if they experience a specific stimulus related to that event. Reliving the event or “being back in that moment” is called post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD. A form of cognitive therapy called eye movement desensitization therapy (EMDR) can help address the specific trauma and related feelings and beliefs.

How You Can Benefit from EMDR

Eye movement desensitization therapy or EMDR is one form of cognitive therapy that involves the therapist guiding his patient through a particular trauma. The movements of EMDR mimic rapid eye movement—REM—during sleep and help the patient process memories and beliefs. As they work through the memory, they discuss the feelings associated with the event, all while the patient focuses on the therapist’s rapidly moving finger. If you suffer from PTSD, you can benefit by learning how to put the trauma and associated memories into context while you learn alternative ways of dealing with the trauma you experienced.

You don’t just work on what the traumatic event did to you in the past--you work on current situations that trigger the traumatic memories, sensations and emotions you are dealing with today. Your therapist will also teach you how to associate more positive experiences that will help you to regain good mental health as you develop adaptive behaviors that will replace your current maladaptive behaviors. (See Ref. 2)

Your EMDR therapy will require that you “revisit” past memories and traumas and the stimuli that trigger memories of these traumas. If you return to a time in your past after hearing the boom of fireworks for instance, you will learn how to associate different, more positive and beneficial stimuli so you can recover from your PTSD. (See Ref. 2)

Phases of EMDR Treatment

During the first phase of EMDR treatment, your therapist will take a detailed history that includes the events leading to your PTSD. Your therapist will assess your readiness for EMDR, and, if he feels you are ready, he will develop a treatment plan. You will discuss past traumatic events and current situational triggers so that he is able to identify specific new behaviors and skills he wants to teach you.

The second phase of treatment will determine if you currently have beneficial methods of handling emotional stress. He will also ensure you have good coping skills and that you are mentally stable. If you are lacking beneficial coping skills or you need to increase your mental stability, he will help you with these areas before beginning work on EMDR. You will learn to use some stress reducing techniques during sessions and in between sessions.

Phases three through six will involve choosing a target memory or trauma and processing this memory using EMDR. While you identify the images and negative beliefs and positive beliefs, you and your therapist will rate how true or valid your positive belief is. As part of your EMDR therapy, you and your therapist will work on rating the negative beliefs so you learn how faulty these beliefs are.

Your therapist will instruct you to concentrate on a negative thought or image and the physical sensations you experience. While you’re doing this, your eyes will be moving rapidly back and forth as you either follow your therapist’s finger or listen to auditory stimuli such as a tap or clapping.

You will then be instructed to clear your mind and notice what is going on inside your body. These will include thoughts, sensations, memories or images. If your level of stress goes up, your therapist will help you to return to a place or point where you can begin to process memories again. If you are having no problems, your therapist will ask you to think of the positive belief you thought about earlier. You will focus on the bad memory again as you move your eyes back and forth.

After a few sessions, you should begin to feel more confident. Your therapist will ask you about body sensations. If you have negative ones remaining, you will work on these.

In the seventh phase, you’ll be asked to keep a journal for one week so you can document anything related to your PTSD and the memories that trigger your symptoms. This journal will also serve to remind you of the positive activities you can use to help prevent yourself from slipping into a state where your PTSD could take over again.

Your eighth phase will begin with a re-evaluation of your past work as well as the progress you have made using EMDR. You should be able to tell your therapist that the work you’ve done with him has helped you to greatly reduce your emotional distress, if not completely eliminate it. You should also have learned some important new views about yourself that will aid in some beneficial behavioral and personal changes.

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