EMDR can be a powerful tool to help clients overcome fear and grief after tragedy. Learn more about how this type of therapy can be helpful for anyone who has experienced tragedy. When you experience the loss of a loved one, or are the victim of a natural disaster, it’s natural to feel grief, anxiety, and hopelessness afterwards. Usually, these feelings subside with time. However, for some people, the grief and fear linger and take over their life.

For those looking for a way to move beyond fear and grief stemming from a life tragedy, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) is an avenue to consider. Developed in the 1980s, EMDR has been recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO), the American Psychiatric Association (APA) and several other organizations as a treatment for people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Many people are finding benefits from EMDR after being unsuccessful with traditional talk and cognitive therapies. In recent research, it has been found to rapidly resolve negative emotions, beliefs and physical sensations in patients. EMDR's ability to create improvement in a relatively short amount of time compared to other methods rests in its focus on treating unprocessed memories that are causing stress and anxiety.

EMDR Can Be Used for Many Types of Fears

EMDR can be used for a variety of circumstances. For instance, a person who has lost a loved one may be ‘stuck’ with the pain and guilt of the loss and therefore not be able to go through the grieving process. EMDR can help them to overcome that pain and enable them to grieve and come to terms with their loss. A person living in persistent fear following a near-fatal car accident may also benefit from EMDR and allow them to move on with their lives. What's more, this treatment can be used for both current and distant events. For some patients, EMDR allows them to finally overcome fears, phobias and flashbacks stemming from childhood traumas. Others seek EMDR treatments soon after a traumatic event.

An Overview of EMDR Therapy

It is believed that the reason why EMDR is so effective for so many people is that traumatic memories actually change the brain. As a result, people who have endured trauma process information that they interact with in the world improperly. Typically, this results in high anxiety, high stress levels and intrusive thoughts. During EMDR, patients are instructed to remember traumatic events as they are guided to perform rapid eye movements that mimic the movements made while in the REM phase of sleep. During the process, the brain is able to process the memories correctly under the guidance of a therapist.

What to Expect During EMDR Therapy

Each EMDR treatment will look different from client to client because the therapist is focused on evaluating each client's ability to be exposed to upsetting memories. The therapist is also tailoring the EMDR experience for specific emotions, sensations and behaviors that a client would like to modify. EMDR therapy is conducted in eight phases as outlined below.

  • Phases 1 and 2: Various psychotherapy approaches (cognitive-behavioral, body therapy, hypnosis, relaxation and psychodynamic therapy) can be used in a framework that is positive and reassuring for a patient.
  • Phase 3: Next, the mental health state of a patient is evaluated.
  • Phases 4 to 8: EMDR therapy is now used to integrate active, unprocessed memories into the patient's full life story.

Once a specific traumatic target has been addressed through EMDR, the client and therapist will identify any other unprocessed traumatic memories to target. Many people seeking help for PTSD following trauma are apprehensive about a treatment like EMDR because they feel uneasy about the idea of reliving the traumatic experiences they've been through. Ultimately, singling out these memories to be re-processed in collaboration with eye movements that help the brain to process information is often the only way to de-couple these vivid memories from the pain they cause. It is important to note that EMDR will not erase the memories being processed, but will take away the pain or anxiety they trigger. During EMDR therapy, a therapist takes every measure possible to ensure that the therapeutic environment is safe and positive for the client at all times.