People interested in EMDR will want to know about how the process works, but also how long it will take to deliver results. Is there a timescale for both how long EMDR sessions last, and also how long one should expect to wait to see some results?
Typically, EMDR sessions last from between 60-90 minutes. In terms of delivering results, EDMR has been shown to be a very powerful and fast acting form of psychotherapy, sometimes delivering rapid improvement in clients in as little as a few sessions, making it a far more effective and powerful therapy than others forms of therapy like CBT.
This has obvious implications in terms of efficiency, time and costs, for the client themselves and for health authorities around the world dealing with trauma. The same kind of progress can often be seen in people recovering from trauma in 3-6 EMDR sessions as would take months or more of other forms of therapy.
Why this is the case is down to several factors related to how EMDR works in resolving trauma. EMDR is a powerful form of therapy which seeks to address trauma on it’s own terms at the core rather than merely the symptoms of trauma, like depression, anxiety, faulty beliefs and so on.
It also has a powerful ripple effect, whereby resolving one or a few major traumas to resolution also resolves other related traumas by proxy, without having to deal with them directly.
Let’s address some of these points in turn, relating to how fast and effective EMDR has proven to be.
The Typical Length of an EMDR Session
We will mention this point in passing as it is still related to the main subject of how long EMDR takes to work.
EMDR sessions with a qualified practitioner are typically between 60-90 minutes duration. This is at the longer end of the spectrum, with more standard therapy sessions typically lasting between 45-60 minutes, with 1 hour being a very typical session length.
This is because dealing with traumatic memories, especially complex ones where several distressing things were happening at once or in a short space of time, can take some time.
It can take several “passes” over a traumatic memory using the eye movements to fully process it to resolution, where it no longer bothers the person at all. See the video below for more on this.
The process of fully “tapping into” a traumatic memory can also take some time, hence the additional session length. Once this sometimes tricky process is underway, it makes sense to spend as much time as possible processing that memory to resolution that time if possible, rather than having to revisit it in subsequent sessions.
The processing of specific memories in EMDR can also bring up other repressed memories, which may also need dealing with. Hence the EMDR process can bring up a lot of psychological baggage that needs dealing with, sometimes requiring slightly longer sessions to really work through effectively.
EMDR Can Deliver Results Very Rapidly
With all this said, it still remains true that EMDR has proven to be one of the most fast acting, powerful and effective forms of psychotherapy for dealing with trauma.
If processing using the eye movements is successful, then cathartic results, where a client is noticeably unburdened from trauma, can happen within even a few moments or minutes. Other times it can happen several hours after a session, or perhaps the next day. Sometimes longer term processing may also be occuring in the week between sessions.
There is a great deal of variation in the results depending on the person and the complexity of the specific traumas being dealt with.
However, for a general average, when done correctly EMDR tends to be able to process one traumatic memory per session. Sometimes more, sometimes less, but one memory per session is a good overall average. See the video below for more on this.
In terms of broader improvements in clients, EMDR is often reported to deliver significant improvements in a person’s quality of life and self image in as little as six sessions or less. Some people even report major changes after even one to three sessions. See our videos page for some testimonials on this.
In this sense, EMDR definitely one of the more powerful and fast acting forms of psychotherapy. Contrast six sessions or less with more conventional forms of therapy like CBT, where expectations and predictions of “How long it will take” to see results often range more in the months and over a year.
Why is EMDR So Fast Acting & Effective?
Why exactly does EMDR have the potential to deliver such fast acting and powerful changes in a person’s life? There are a number of reasons for this; let’s deal with some of the main ones.
1.Treating Causes vs Symptoms – EMDR is a fundamental or “core” therapy in that it actually treats the cause or root of trauma – the trauma itself – and not the symptoms or off-shoots of this trauma such as other mental conditions like depression, anxiety, addictions and stress.
Other forms of therapy like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) can often fall into the trap of treating symptoms and not causes when it comes to trauma, making them far less efficient and more long winded ways of addressing the issue.
EMDR processes the trauma directly on it’s own terms, often allowing any resulting conditions like depression and anxiety to dissolve away of their own accord, since the underlying trauma which was driving them has now been dealt with.
See our article contrasting CBT and EMDR for dealing with trauma for more on this issue.
2. The REM Sleep Hypothesis – There are several different theories as to how exactly EMDR works, but the one which makes the most sense to many professionals is the REM Sleep Hypothesis. This aruges that EMDR processes trauma by basically replicating what happen normally for us during REM sleep.
This means that the eyes moving backwards and forwards – which is what happens during REM sleep – is the brain’s way of processing memories to resolution, discarding what is no longer useful (including negative feelings surrounding memories) and keeping what is useful (basic facts of what happened).
The REM Sleep Hypothesis holds that EMDR is merely doing the same thing using eye movement, only when we are consciously awake, and targeting in specifically on certain memories, as opposed to dreams and REM Sleep, which are more random and less controllable.
Either way, it is clear that eye movements are a key part of the EMDR process, and it appears that giving the mind/brain something external to focus on, in terms of an object moving backwards and forwards, whilst also focusing in on an internal distressing state or memory, creates a powerful dual focus of attention which is what gives EMDR it’s therapeutic power.
It appears that having something else to focus on in addition to the traumatic memory, effectively causes the mind/brain to blur or lessen the intensity of the memory, taking the emotional “sting” out of it. It becomes just another memory, and does not burden or distress the person so much.
This in brief is the most accepted hypothesis for how EMDR works in processing trauma, and what seems to make it such a powerful and fast acting process. It effectively seems to distract the mind/brain into letting go of trauma.
3. The Ripple Effect – EMDR also has a well noted ripple effect, making for very efficient therapy. This means that processing one or several key standout or “cornerstone” traumatic experiences to resolution using EMDR also often has a “flow on” or ripple effect to all other negative experiences in that class of experience.
For example, if a client undergoes EMDR having experienced many dozens of instances of humiliation during his childhood, then he doesn’t have to work with every single negative experience of humiliation.
He and his therapist just need to pick out a couple of key standout experiences of humilation, which, if worked on successfully, will generalize to (and process to resolution) all the other experiences of humiliation he experienced, without having to work on them directly.
This is because related experiences are often stored neurologically on the same pathways in the brain, meaning that similar pathways are activated when experiences belonging to a certain class of experience (eg. humiliation, rejection, ridicule etc) are lived through.
This means that resolving one negative experience using EMDR tends to resolve all the similar ones as well, stored on the same pathways. See the video below for more on this:
This means that the therapist and client can be intelligent and strategic in the way they target memories, not going through every single one, but simply grouping all negative experiences into broad categories and classes, and picking out several key standout experiences from each class to work on.
This is the goal of the client history phase at the start of the EMDR process – see our article on the full 8 step EMDR process for more on this – where the therapist and client will draw up a life history of negative experiences, to get a better overview of which general patterns of negative experiences characterize the person’s life so far.
This gives a better picture of which general themes (eg. rejection, humiliation, bullying) and which specific experiences need to be worked on.
If done correctly, this should have a flow on effect and generalize to all other similar negative experiences, making for very efficient and fast acting therapy which can clear out a lot of psychological “baggage” in a short space of time compared to other forms of therapy.
These are some of the main reasons why EMDR tends to receive such positive feedback from clients and therapists in terms of the fast results it delivers in improving a person’s quality of life.