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How Does Online EMDR Work? Everything You Need to Know

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a leading evidence-based treatment for depression, anxiety, phobias, and trauma. While you may have heard the term EMDR in connection with mental health treatment options, you might be unsure if this type of therapy would be effective for your situation, especially on a virtual platform.

Many mental healthcare providers started offering various telehealth and online modalities during the pandemic, including EMDR, to address the heightened demand for COVID-safe mental health services.

As a result of the pandemic, online therapy is becoming more accessible, and more clients are getting the treatment they need to heal.

Keep reading to learn more about online EMDR therapy.

What is EMDR?

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a type of therapy in which a client processes memories while engaging in bilateral stimulation (BLS) using eye movements, auditory sounds, or tactile stimulation. EMDR mimics the mind’s natural ability to heal itself and process life events, particularly in the state of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep.

While awake and alert, an EMDR therapist prompts the client to make rapid eye movements using BLS. These rapid eye movements accelerate the brain’s ability to process emotions and events. EMDR therapists can use other tools and techniques, including a light bar, physical stimulation, sounds, and online software that alternates or moves left to right.

EMDR uses dual stimulation to prompt the brain to reprocess memories and facilitate the desensitization and adaptation of negative memories. Clinicians lead clients through a series of bilateral physical movements or other forms of stimulation while recalling traumatic or triggering events until these memories no longer cause emotional pain.

When the brain reprocesses painful memories in a healthy, safe environment, clients experience relief from negative symptoms associated with traumatic experiences.

[Related: How to Heal from a Trauma Bond Relationship]

Scientific studies show that EMDR may help treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), negative feelings after adverse life events, and even ease somatic symptoms such as pain or muscle tension. Research shows EMDR can improve depression, panic disorder, psychosis, anxiety, eating disorders, chronic pain, and substance use disorders.

Is Online EMDR Effective?

EMDR therapy is highly effective in treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and anxiety. It was developed in 1987 by Dr. Francine Shapiro as a PTSD treatment and is guided by the Adaptive Information Processing model.

According to the National Network of Depression Centers, one in five Americans will be affected by mental health issues at some point in their life, and 6% of Americans will experience PTSD during their lifetime. While other treatments such as talk therapy focus on altering the emotions, thoughts, and responses related to traumatic experiences, EMDR instead changes how traumatic memories are stored in the brain. The result is a decrease and potential elimination of uncomfortable symptoms.

During EMDR, a therapist will stimulate the brain with specific eye movements and left-right (bilateral) stimulation methods. Throughout the process, clients briefly focus on the traumatic memory while experiencing BLS, and over time, the vividness and emotion connected with the memory decrease.

Online EMDR sessions can benefit clients who have limited time to engage in routine therapy or have difficulty with transportation. Virtual EMDR can be especially helpful for clients living with phobias, struggling with an immunocompromised state of health, or simply seeking privacy while engaging in mental health treatment.

Additionally, EMDR is highly effective in treating PTSD, depression, anxiety, phobias, panic attacks, substance use disorders, and chronic pain.

Similarities Between In-Person and Online EMDR Therapy

online EMDR therapy

Traditional in-person EMDR sessions and virtual EMDR are very similar. During an in-person session, the therapist and client are together in a therapist’s office. Therapists who offer online EMDR sessions can support clients anywhere there is an internet connection. For both in-person sessions and EMDR online, the client and therapist must have space to engage in therapy in private and without interruptions.

Both in-person sessions and EMDR online modalities require trust and rapport between the therapist and client. Online EMDR sessions and in-person treatment require bilateral stimulation. BLS can be activated using a light bar, sounds, or other visual or tactile stimulation. Finally, both treatment modalities typically follow an established process of EMDR treatment with specific steps and phases.

Online EMDR therapy works similarly to in-person services. However, with virtual EMDR, the therapist and client are in separate locations, connected via technology. While telehealth existed before the pandemic, COVID-19 created a greater demand for more therapists to provide services online. Currently, the telehealth trend continues, and virtual therapy and other healthcare visits are becoming the norm.

[Read: Mental Health Impacts of COVID-19]

Differences Between In-Person and Online EMDR

in-office EMDR therapy

The primary difference between in-person sessions and online Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing is location. Virtual EMDR allows each participant to meet from separate areas, and online access can provide great flexibility for clients. In addition, therapists can also benefit from greater online access and serve a broader range of clients.

Another difference between in-person sessions and EMDR online therapy is the method of BLS utilized during treatment. For example, if visual stimulation is selected, the therapist must allow for the necessary eye movement within the screen the client is viewing; the BLS technique must be available for the client to access from home.

Some therapists utilize alternative EMDR options that are more suited for virtual clients. For example, a therapist might have the client tap alternating hands on a surface instead of holding vibrating devices in each hand. As EMDR has grown in popularity, therapists share best practices to improve effectiveness for virtual clients.

The online setup is not less effective than traditional EMDR, and while research related specifically to EMDR therapy online is ongoing, online therapy, in general, has already proven to be highly effective. Many EMDR therapy clients report very high success rates with 90% reporting improvement in as few as 1 to 3 visits.

Benefits of Online EMDR

There are many benefits to online EMDR, ranging from simple personal preference to greater accessibility for those struggling with mental health issues. Virtual EMDR can be especially helpful for someone struggling with a phobia or trauma that impacts their ability to feel safe in public spaces.

Online EMDR is effective and supported by major global associations, including the EMDR International Association and EMDR Europe. Below, you’ll find more reasons why virtual EMDR is a great option.

Freedom

Online EMDR sessions allow clients to access therapy from literally anywhere with a secure internet connection. This freedom of access gives clients the opportunity to select from a wide range of qualified EMDR therapists. Online mental health treatment allows for enhanced privacy on a protected platform.

Convenience

The flexibility of online therapy permits clients to book sessions that work with their schedules. Greater scheduling flexibility allows clients to participate in therapy without taking significant time off from work or scrambling to find childcare. Online EMDR enables the client to eliminate transportation costs and travel time. Attending online sessions permits clients to continue treatment even in situations requiring restrictions for in-person contact.

Safe Space

With online EMDR, clients can access therapy from a place that they consider safe and comfortable. This feeling of ease is a solid foundation for clients looking to work through painful memories and emotions.

Many clients prefer to participate in therapy sessions from their own homes, enjoying enhanced feelings of privacy, safety, and comfort. A comfortable environment can go a long way in helping you open up more to address trauma symptoms, difficult memories, and painful experiences. Clients who feel safe participating in therapy are more likely to continue treatment and achieve higher treatment outcomes.

Less Effort

Attending EMDR sessions online requires less effort from the client, as long as they have reliable access to technology. Starting with the initial consultation to the last therapy session, online EMDR is easy to research and access. Easier accessibility can be particularly beneficial for clients experiencing draining mental health issues.

The reduced effort required to attain online EMDR treatment prevents clients from feeling overwhelmed while trying to heal, and the ease of online EMDR can decrease stress for clients.

Availability

It can be difficult for some clients to access mental health treatment consistently if they have limited availability. Online EMDR can connect therapists and clients across state lines for enhanced access. Clients can choose from a wide range of qualified clinicians with availability that matches their schedule by engaging in treatment online.

The decreased time required to conduct online EMDR treatment allows practitioners to provide services to a greater number of clients. This increased availability serves as a benefit to both clients and EMDR therapists.

How to Get Started with Online EMDR Therapy

The first step for those interested in starting EMDR online is to contact us. The EMDR International Association provides a list of up-to-date resources and a directory of clinicians providing EMDR in your area.

What You Need for Online EMDR Therapy

Before starting online therapy, you should ensure you have some essential items to facilitate virtual connection and space for privacy.

Reliable Internet Connection

A reliable internet connection is a must for any kind of telehealth appointment. EMDR therapy can be emotionally destabilizing, and an interrupted session can leave you feeling off-balance and deregulated. The last thing you want to experience is getting deep into the middle of a traumatic memory only to be disrupted by an internet issue and then left to process without the support of your therapist.

Typically, a telehealth platform will test your internet speed and reliability to ensure that you don’t experience any disruptive connectivity issues.

Computer or Laptop

A smartphone can be an easy first step to engaging in online therapy. However, EMDR is more effective with a larger monitor. A computer screen is ideal for online EMDR because it offers more space and impact for a therapist to utilize visual BLS methods.

Headphones

Headphones are a great tool for online therapy for a couple of reasons. For one thing, headphones allow you to participate in EMDR modalities using auditory BLS options. Additionally, headphones can provide enhanced privacy in a shared space, like if you have family or roommates at home.

Webcam or Built-in Camera

A webcam or built-in camera is important because much of the communication used in an EMDR session is non-verbal. A camera allows you to see your therapist and, conversely, enables your therapist to gauge the effectiveness of treatment as the session progresses.

You’ll need first to develop rapport with your therapist before you can feel safe being vulnerable. Since online therapy removes the benefits of a shared space, developing rapport relies more on visual cues and references. A webcam or built-in camera enhances the connection between you and your therapist.

Private, Safe, and Uninterrupted Space

One of the essential elements of online EMDR is having a private, safe, and uninterrupted space in which you can participate in therapy. EMDR treatment will bring up sensitive and hurtful memories as reprocessing begins, and it’s important you feel safe and can fully work through these emotions without interruption before your session is over. A private space is vital because it helps ensure that you’ll feel able to open up and delve into trauma treatment.

How to Choose an Online EMDR Therapist

When choosing an EMDR therapist, it’s important that you feel safe, heard, and validated. You need to develop a trusting relationship with your therapist as they work with you to discover the origins of your concerns and effectively address anything that may come up during your session.

The EMDR International Association provides a list of up-to-date resources and a directory of clinicians providing EMDR in your area. You should confirm your potential therapist’s educational background and check their licensing and credentials.

EMDR is a specialty practice in the field of mental health. Professional credentials signal that the therapist has completed specific training to provide certain types of therapy. While credentials will vary from state to state, they generally demonstrate a high level of competence and responsibility. Clients should be able to expect to work with someone who is committed to helping people and dedicated to avoiding causing any additional harm.

Of course, you’ll also want to confirm whether your potential therapist accepts your insurance or requires cash payment for services.

How to Prepare for Online EMDR

EMDR therapy follows a specific eight-phase pattern that includes treatment planning, preparation, assessment, desensitization, installation, body scanning, closure, and examining treatment progress. Before starting an EMDR session, your therapist will lay the groundwork for a successful first session. Here’s what you can expect before, during, and after treatment.

Phone Consultation

During the first phone consultation, a therapist will commence the initial few steps of EMDR by taking your history, describing the steps of treatment, and preparing you for the weeks to come.

Building a Relationship

online EMDR

A trusting relationship between therapists and their clients is the cornerstone for successful treatment. A reliable therapist will seek to establish rapport and develop trust before delving into traumatic memories.

EMDR Preparation

During the preparation stage, your therapist will help you learn various techniques to manage emotional or psychological stress. You may learn deep breathing techniques, mindfulness exercises, and containment skills suited for trauma therapy.

Evaluation

In the evaluation step of EMDR, your therapist will work with you to pick the specific memories that you will target together. You’ll rate the negative emotions associated with each memory and work on isolating individual components of the memory. This could look like identifying the negative belief accompanying each target memory.

With this blueprint for treatment and lots of preparation, you’re ready to start your first session.

What To Expect During an Online EMDR Session

EMDR sessions typically last 50 minutes and take place weekly or biweekly. Regularity and frequency are important aspects of successful therapy, and your therapist will work with you to determine what schedule fits your needs.

A typical EMDR session follows a general pattern. The first session or two with your therapist will focus on developing a personal history and identifying potential targets to address in future EMDR sessions. Your therapist will work with you to recognize specific negative beliefs about yourself, troubling memories, or areas where you want to find healing.

At the beginning of each session, your therapist will greet you and inquire about any changes or meaningful experiences since your last visit. Your therapist will guide you through processing hurtful beliefs and memories one step at a time while using bilateral stimulation. You’ll work on intentionally replacing negative thoughts about yourself with new positive beliefs. Together, you will process painful memories, engaging both sides of your brain to facilitate deep healing.

EMDR engages your brain in a new way, literally allowing your brain to heal itself.

Your therapist will be with you the whole time to guide your session and assist you in emotional regulation as you process. Before ending the visit, your therapist will help you utilize a method of mental containment to separate the painful memories from the present moment. Your therapist will ensure you are in a state of emotional calm before you leave.

[Read: Virtual Recovery Resources: How to Find Online Support]

FAQs about Online EMDR Therapy

What if I need to cancel or reschedule a session?

EMDR clients need to engage in treatment as regularly as possible. If you know you will be unable to attend a session, contact your therapist to reschedule as quickly as possible. Most therapists require 24 hours’ notice at minimum to avoid paying for a missed session.

What if I’m not comfortable with online EMDR?

If you start therapy and realize you aren’t comfortable with online EMDR, that’s okay! You can discuss these concerns with your therapist and see if any alternative methods might work better for you. If your therapist cannot meet with you in person, they will likely be able to refer you to another therapist instead.

Will my insurance cover online EMDR therapy?

Private insurance plans will typically cover EMDR. Contact your insurance company to discuss your mental and behavioral health options. Your insurance company may have a list of preferred providers and can also be a resource to find a list of EMDR therapists in your area.

Begin a New Journey with Online EMDR Therapy

telehealth

If you’re experiencing trauma triggers or overwhelming negative emotions, EMDR treatment may be an excellent fit. If you have panic attacks, PTSD, phobias, anxiety, or depression, EMDR may be the key that unlocks greater healing. Even clients who have tried traditional talk therapy in the past can gain something new from EMDR.

Scientific studies suggest EMDR can treat other concerns such as eating disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), addiction, and chronic pain. Online EMDR ensures this highly effective treatment is easy to access and available for you to start immediately.

All Points North exists to bring access to Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing and other therapy modalities to every client who needs it. With in-person service and online therapy in the APN Connection App, we can serve clients across the country and around the globe.

Our mission is to educate and empower individuals, couples, and families with the knowledge and tools necessary to experience profound healing and lasting change.

Don’t wait any longer. Learn more about APN’s EMDR therapy options and start your journey today!