Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy (EMDR) is a very popular and effective treatment option. It’s known for the often rapid and sustainable relief it provides to trauma survivors but is also effectively used for other issues, e.g. anxiety or depression. Unlike like traditional talk therapy, EMDR involves a combination of visualization, eye movements, and hand or finger movements.
You hold a negative thought in your mind while your therapist moves their hands in front of your eyes. This induces a state in which you can process a bad memory without being triggered. In the process, you replace that thought with something positive.
There Are Two Different Kinds of “First Session”
Initially, you and your therapist will meet to get to know each other. During this session, any or all of these will happen:
- The therapist will take your history
- Details about your childhood will be revealed
- Traumatic memories will be discussed as targets
- Distorted thought patterns pertaining to those memories are identified
- You will be taught more about EMDR and learn some basic coping skills
Then your first desensitization session during which you revisit past events, induce the EMDR state and talk about your experience with your therapist afterward. It is this first session that is our focus in this particular post.
What Can You Expect After Your First EMDR Session?
The odds are that you haven’t done anything quite like EMDR before. This can be simultaneously exciting and nerve-wracking. Of course, every session, therapist, and client is different. But many similar reactions have been witnessed. Let’s explore some of these common threads. For starters, you may:
- Discover that you are thinking often and deeply about the session
- Experience bodily sensations that are not alarming but feel new
- Be more emotional than usual
- Have and remember vivid dreams
The EMDR process works to unblock your memory networks. Thoughts and ideas that have been blocked are easing back into your consciousness. You may feel unusual about this but not in a disturbing way. Soon enough, you will be welcoming the return of stuck memories.
Even after just one session, you may notice a marked improvement in daily functioning. This may be accompanied by a more positive outlook. Little things don’t feel so insurmountable anymore.
Perhaps best of all, even before you return for a second session, you will discern that you can think about — and talk about — the past without side effects like flashbacks or negative physical sensations. The memories you focus on during desensitization are being integrated into your memory bank in a way that removes the triggers. It’s something that happened but not something you dwell on or dread.
What Happens From There?
Generally speaking — based on a growing body of research — you just keep feeling better. EMDR has been shown, over and over, to have a stellar record in creating the kind of results that linger. The very minor side effects listed above fade and you get to focus on enjoying life without feeling trapped by trauma, negative memories, or distorted thought patterns.
In some very specific and limited circumstances, EMDR is a short-term treatment plan that offers long-term relief. You may do about 6 to 12 sessions — sometimes on consecutive days. This is often the case if you have what we call “single incident trauma”.
But a qualified therapist will discuss with you what you can reasonably expect.
In other circumstances, EMDR is a longer term comprehensive approach. For example, some people have what we call “co-morbidities”. They come to therapy with a few different symptoms, like issues with mood, sleep, addictions, relationship issues, etc. Others come into therapy and have long standing difficulties whose roots lie in childhood.
Still others may have what we commonly refer to as “Complex Trauma”. This means that the symptoms arise from being in a sustained or repeated life threatening situation.
Ideally your therapist will do a high quality assessment, and he/she has specialized advanced training and experience in assessing and treating these issues like this with EMDR. Keep in mind, most mental health clinicians do not have this, so be sure to inquire.
In other words, working side-by-side with a certified and experienced therapist, you are rapidly putting yourself onto the path toward healing. After just a couple of sessions, you are reminded of just how powerful and resilient you are. Studies have found EMDR to be about 40 percent more effective than talk therapy alone when it comes to trauma recovery.