How EMDR Helps Members of the Military Cope with Trauma & PTSD


While most people are unfamiliar with EMDR, or eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy, it has actually been in use for several decades now. It was developed in the 1980s as a means of alleviating the psychological stress that’s caused by past traumatic events. Although it has been adapted to help others, it’s particularly effective in treating military personnel, who have PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder.

EMDR in a Nutshell

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy is a form of psychotherapy and it involves a guided reliving of past traumatic experiences. As you’re directed to recall the event that causes you to experience psychological stress, a therapist teaches you how to control your eye movements. Learning this type of control helps you minimize the effect that the traumatic memory has on your emotional state.

No one really knows for sure why controlling eye movements helps to manage psychological stress, but it may have something to do with distracting the memory recall process. Some believe that distracting the thoughts with voluntary eye movements helps divert the patient’s attention, so his or her full concentration is no longer focused solely on the memory. This minimizes the impact the memory has on the individual and reduces the psychological stress it causes. Over time, the memory will produce less of an emotional reaction, even when the individual is outside of therapy.

Benefiting from Therapy

Initially, this type of psychotherapy was used almost exclusively with military personnel, but, today, it can benefit anyone suffering from past traumatic experiences. After going through the eight step therapy, people with PTSD no longer have difficulty talking about their past experiences. They can talk more freely about the memories, which means other types of therapy will also be more effective. Successful completion of the process also helps individuals function better on a day to day basis.

Once the effectiveness of eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy was seen in soldiers and others with post-traumatic stress disorder, therapists began adapting the therapy. They found that it could be used to help alleviate a number of other mental illnesses and psychological disorders.

Specifically, EMDR is currently used to treat patients suffering from:

  • Panic attacks
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Eating disorders
  • Drug and alcohol addiction


The Eight Phases of EMDR Treatment

As previously mentioned, there are eight steps, or phases, in eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy. Typically, the full treatment requires 12 individual therapy sessions, so patients should not expect a quick fix. A process of learning and adapting is necessary, so it will take time and dedication to benefit from treatment.

In Phase 1, the therapist will meet with you to discuss your history. This is an evaluation to determine how you have responded to past types of therapy. Additionally, the session will help identify specific traumatic events on which to focus future therapy sessions.

In Phase 2, the therapist will teach you new coping mechanisms. This may include deep breathing exercises, meditation that focuses on mindfulness, and other techniques.

Phase 3 requires you to discuss your past trauma in more detail. The therapist will need to know the specifics of the event, as well as the symptoms that recalling those memories produces.

Phases 4 through 7 will dive deeply into the actual treatment process. The therapist will encourage you to recall specific traumatic experiences, while also encouraging you to maintain control of your eye movements. In addition to instructing you performing specific eye movements, your therapist may also create tapping sounds, or ask you to perform other random movements. After a few minutes, you’ll take a break from reliving the traumatic memory. Instead, you’ll be asked to let your thoughts wander and discuss the first things that come to your mind. This provides you an opportunity to return to a more calm state, before returning to thoughts about the traumatic events in your past. As your sessions advance, the level of distress you experience over your past traumas will start to fade.

In Phase 8, you and your therapist will evaluate your progress. At this time, it may be determined that the therapy was successful and you’re ready to graduate from the program. Otherwise, you may have to return to Phase 3 and begin the process anew, possibly focusing on a different traumatic event from your past.

Regardless of the cause of your PTSD, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy can help you cope with the psychological stress of your condition. This process is particularly useful in helping soldiers, who have endured the horrors of war, though it can also be used to treat other causes of distress. Victims of abuse, auto accidents, and other traumatic experiences may also benefit from the therapy.

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