Adults, Teenagers, Trauma, Young Adults

The 8 Phases of EMDR: An Adventure to Emotional Healing & Recovery

Let’s talk about the fascinating therapy approach known as Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (or EMDR, for short). I know the name might sound a bit intimidating, but trust me, it is a truly transformative process. What’s the deal with it, you ask? Well, it’s a psychotherapy technique (developed by psychologist Dr. Francine Shapiro in the late 1980s) that works wonders in helping people process those tough memories and experiences that weigh them down. It involves a structured progression through eight distinct phases.

Sound like a lot?! Well therapy doesn’t have to be intimidating or boring. I like to think of these phases as different parts of an exciting opportunity to embark on a journey of personal growth with the guidance of a skilled therapist. So, let’s buckle up and embark on this ride through the eight phases of EMDR therapy.

an image of two hikers with backpacks walking in the woods on a trail with the sun shining behind the trees as a symbol of being on a journey of healing

Phase 1 of EMDR: Setting Sail (History Taking)

This is like an icebreaker with your therapist, where you get to share your life story, struggles, and goals. While sharing this information with a therapist is beneficial to the EMDR process, for some, retelling their life story can be uncomfortable. A good therapist will help you differentiate between genuine sharing and trauma dumping. The goal is to prevent excessive and distressing details that create emotional flooding. This phase may take 1-2 sessions as you navigate through the process of finding a balanced approach. With a focus on balanced communication, trust, and collaboration, this phase is like setting the stage for the journey ahead. 

Phase 2 of EMDR: Mapping the Path (Preparation)

In this phase,  you will learn several coping skills and relaxation techniques to help you manage any distress that may arise during the upcoming therapy process. This phase can span 2-3 sessions, although it is worth noting that the number of sessions may extend depending on your specific needs. And that is okay! Your therapist wants to ensure that you are equipped with the necessary tools and skills to navigate this journey effectively. Think of it as packing your emotional backpack with tools to navigate the ups and downs.

The next several phases often happen within the course of one therapy session. However, you may repeat this cycle in multiple sessions until your targeted memory or experience is fully resolved.

Phase 3 of EMDR: Gathering Supplies (Assessment)

Time for a little detective work! You and your therapist will identify the specific memories or experiences that are causing you distress. These are called ‘targets’. It is like finding clues to understand the root of your emotions and reactions. Don’t worry, though, your therapist will guide you through this process.

Phase 4 of EMDR: Crossing the Threshold (Desensitization)

Here’s where the real magic happens. You’ll focus on a specific target while engaging in bilateral stimulation (BLS). This could include eye movements, taps, or sounds. BLS sets are timed to address the targeted experience or memory, and your therapist will ask guiding questions in between. You don’t need to give lengthy responses, just focus on your internal experience. 

The BLS process involves rewiring your brain to forge new connections as you revisit the past. Its effectiveness stems from activating different parts of the brain simultaneously, merging the targeted memory, and promoting emotional resolution and lasting change. It might seem or feel strange, but trust me, it works!

Phase 5 of EMDR: Illuminating the Way (Installation)

Feeling better isn’t just about reducing the negative feelings, but also about increasing the positive feelings. After desensitization, you’ll explore and integrate positive thoughts, feelings, and sensations related to the distressing memory. Reinforcing positive beliefs, positive emotions, and adaptive coping mechanisms is like replacing negative self-talk with empowering mantras. You’ll feel like a motivational speaker for your own mind!

Phase 6 of EMDR: Navigating the Rapids (Body Scan)

an infographic titled "body sensations" depicting the typical physical sensations one feels at different places in the body

Time to check in with your body, my friends! Distressing experiences can manifest in physical sensations or discomfort.

In this phase, you’ll pay close attention to any remaining physical sensations or discomfort associated with the distressing memory. It’s like doing a thorough inspection and releasing any lingering tension.

Let your body become a relaxed oasis!

Phase 7 of EMDR: Reaching the Summit (Closure)

Just like wrapping up a chapter in a book, it’s time to bring the session to a close. Your therapist will guide you through a relaxation exercise or routine, ensuring you feel calm and centered before leaving the therapy space. 

There could be times where you are not able to fully resolve a target during one session. This could be caused by various factors, such as the complexity of the target, time constraints, or the need for further exploration. Rest assured that the process is adaptable.  If it takes more than one session to fully address a target, you can revisit phases 3-6 in your next sessions. Even then, the session will always close with phase 7. This flexible approach ensures that each session is concluded in a meaningful way while allowing for the necessary adjustment to meet your needs.

Phase 8 of EMDR: Returning home (Reevaluation)

Remember the detective work we did earlier? Well, we’re doing it again. In your next session, you will reflect on progress made, celebrate accomplishments, and explore any additional targets that might need attention. Even if you plan to return to a previous target, you will still start the session with phase 8 to shepherd you back into revisiting the target. This process is like fine-tuning your emotional growth and embarking on new adventures over and over again. You’re evolving, my friend!

And there you have it! The eight phases of EMDR therapy.

Remember: there is no fixed time limit for this journey. Healing is a personal process, and it unfolds at its own pace.

It is truly incredible how this approach can help individuals overcome their past and embrace a brighter future. Whether you’re considering your first time in therapy or curious about a different method of therapy from what you’ve been trying, EMDR is definitely worth exploring. Whenever you feel the need for extra support, consider giving the EMDR journey a chance. Along the way, you’ll likely discover a newfound sense of empowerment, resilience, and inner peace. 

About the Author:

headshot of Lauren Smith, LCPC, EMDR expert at Montgomery County Counseling Center

Lauren Smith, LCPC is a therapist at Montgomery County Counseling Center in Rockville, Maryland and is trained in Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TF-CBT), Acceptance Commitment Therapy (ACT), Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), and Eye Movement Desensitization & Reprocessing (EMDR). Among her many strengths, Lauren specializes in supporting clients experiencing anxiety, depression, trauma, interpersonal challenges, life transitions, and serious emotional/behavioral issues.

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