Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a therapeutic approach that can feel really foreign and strange when you’re used to talk therapy.
In fact, one of the most common questions for clients who are just getting started is, “Am I doing it right?!”
You can rest assured that with a properly trained therapist, there is no wrong way to do EMDR, but having some knowledge about what to expect can also really help quiet those uneasy feelings as you try on a new approach to therapy.
When you’re first getting started, EMDR will feel very similar to any other counseling.
All great therapists will take the time to get to know you, learn about your strengths, explore the areas where you would like to see growth, answer your questions, and make sure that the therapeutic relationship is working well.
EMDR will start out the same way, and this process can take anywhere from one session to many months of talk therapy and history gathering depending on your preferences, needs, risk factors, and the therapist’s approach.
Once you and your therapist are confident that you have a number of resources to help regulate your mental health symptoms between sessions, the heart of EMDR — desensitization and reprocessing — will begin. This is where the biggest differences between EMDR and talk therapy come into play, and that question, “Am I doing it right?” usually pops up.
During a session of reprocessing, you and your therapist will work together to identify a target memory to work on.
You may show up with really specific memories that intrude on your present life, or you may not have any idea which memories need some attention, and that’s okay.
If it feels overwhelming or impossible to figure out which memory/memories you want or need to reprocess, no problem! Your therapist is trained to help guide you.
Once a target memory has been identified, your therapist will ask you a short series of questions to activate your mind and body, get a measure of how bothersome the memory is for you, help you identify some specific details about the memory and how you’re feeling, and begin bilateral stimulation (any stimulation that crosses back and forth over the midline of the body).
Traditionally, EMDR used bilateral eye movement, and the client would watch the therapist’s finger as the therapist moved their hand back and forth in front of the client’s line of vision. Now, we know that other forms of bilateral stimulation also work well.
A lot of times, people will choose to cross their arms over their chest, place their hands on the front of their shoulders, and tap back and forth, or put on headphones and listen to music that plays back and forth between their ears.
Once your target memory has been activated, you and your therapist will engage in the bilateral stimulation of your choice, and this part of the session does not include talking.
Your only job is to notice whatever it is you are experiencing.
After a certain amount of time determined by your therapist’s training (typically no less than 10 seconds, and no more than a few minutes at a time), your therapist will pause your bilateral stimulation and ask you what you’re noticing.
Your job now is to respond openly and honestly.
You can share as much detail or as little detail as you want, and there is no right or wrong answer. If you’re noticing some life-changing insight about your memory, that’s right! If you’re noticing that you’re hungry, that’s also right!
If you notice that you feel like you’re doing this wrong, that’s a correct response as well.
The most important thing is sharing whatever it is that is coming to you so that your therapist can help guide the process as they are trained to do.
Some common things that people notice include physical sensations in their bodies, changes in their emotions, images connected to the memory, other connected memories, and conversations between a past version of themselves and the present version of themselves.
While these responses are common, they are no more right or wrong than any other thing you may notice.
Again, the most important thing is that you feel safe being honest with your therapist because they will use your report of what you’re noticing to make therapeutic decisions that guide sessions.
Most commonly, your therapist will guide you to do another set of bilateral stimulation in silence. Then, your therapist will check in again, you’ll share whatever you’re noticing, and this pattern repeats either until the session is nearly over, or you are experiencing significant relief.
Sometimes, clients will need or want a break from reprocessing, or therapists will identify immediate symptoms that need regulation. If this happens, reprocessing can be paused and grounding exercises can be used until you are ready to continue.
Oftentimes, a session will end before your memory is completely reprocessed, and that’s okay! We can always come back to it if it needs more attention next time.
In short, if you’re feeling good about your therapist and their training and doing your best to listen to your mind and body, you are all set to master this EMDR thing every step of the way.