Attachment Focused EMDR: What to Expect for your First Session

This article is based on scientific evidence and clinical experience, written by a licensed professional and fact-checked by experts.

Posted: November 15, 2023

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

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Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) is a therapeutic technique that has been used by mental health professionals for years. It has proven to be an effective treatment for PTSD, trauma, phobias, and many other mental health diagnoses.

What is EMDR?

The foundation of EMDR is based on the belief that our emotional health is linked to our somatic or physical state (Parnell Institute, 2023). Eye movements or other bilateral stimulation (tapping on legs, auditory sounds) are used in EMDR to process and release memories trapped within the body and mind (Parnell Institute, 2023). The result is reduced vividness and intensity of emotions and somatic experiences tied to traumatic experiences.

How Does EMDR Treat Mental Health Issues?

When a trauma is experienced, the amygdala (involved in fear, emotions, and fight or flight response), hippocampus (stores memories), and prefrontal cortex (analyzes behavior and emotion) communicate to process the event (EMDRIA EMDR International Association, 2023). For some traumatic experiences, the brain can process the event without help. In other situations, stress hormones interfere with the brains ability to adequately process the traumatic event (EMDRIA EMDR International Association, 2023). Therefore, the event is stored in the nervous system. Whenever a trigger for this event happens, the body reacts in fight, flight or freeze mode as if it were back in the original trauma experience.

By bringing up a picture of the traumatic event, emotions, body sensations, and negative belief, EMDR allows your nervous system to fully process the event through use of bilateral stimulation. Accessing both the right and left sides of the brain makes it possible for the nervous system to process the trauma correctly. This leads to you remembering the event, but no longer feeling it is still happening.

How Is Attachment Focused EMDR Different?

The foundation of AF-EMDR is a restorative relationship between the client and therapist. Attachment focused EMDR (AF-EMDR) involves three modalities: resource tapping to strengthen clients’ resilience (Parnell, 2008), EMDR to process trauma, and talk-therapy to incorporate new experiences (Parnell Institute, 2023). Resource tapping involves visualizing a peaceful place, nurturing figures, protector figures, and wise figures while adding bilateral stimulation to strengthen them (Parnell, 2008). This provides helpful tools to use during the actual processing of trauma. Due to incorporating the above modalities, AF-EMDR is an effective treatment of clients who have not historically responded to EMDR (Parnell Institute, 2023).

What Can You Expect My First AF-EMDR Session?

The goals for the first session of AF-EMDR from the counselor’s stand point are to build rapport, understand current symptoms, understand goals, explain the AF-EMDR process, and to determine if you are a good candidate for AF-EMDR. Many new clients come into their first AF-EMDR session expecting to reprocess memories during the first session, this is not how AF-EMDR works. It is important that you feel comfortable and emotionally safe with your counselor. Your counselor needs to understand what symptoms you are hoping to resolve and what your goals are for the AF-EMDR process.

Another key step new clients are not aware about is the need for your counselor to gain a detailed history. History taking involves discussing infancy, childhood, adolescence, adulthood, family history, attachment history, medical history, mental health issues, and trauma experiences. While this may feel like a slow process, it is imperative for the counselor to have this history during reprocessing of your traumatic memories. While many people are good candidates for AF-EMDR, there are a few conditions where AF-EMDR is not recommended. These conditions include a history of seizure disorder, traumatic brain injury, current psychosis, and currently addicted to and abusing substances.

What Does Subsequent Sessions Look Like?

After a history is obtained from the client, the AF-EMDR therapy model is explained in more detail and client questions are answered. The client begins developing resources such as a peaceful place, nurturing figures, protector figures, and wise figures to be used during reprocessing (Parnell, 2008). The process of developing resources can take multiple sessions to complete. Before moving on to reprocessing memories, the counselor will assess whether a client is grounded to the present moment and developed adequate resources (Parnell Institute, 2023).

Once the above tasks are completed, the client will identify the memory or issue they would like to address. This involves bringing up a picture of the traumatic event, emotions, body sensations, and negative belief attached to the traumatic event (Parnell Institute, 2023). Bilateral stimulation is then added to reprocess the traumatic event. Multiple sessions may be required to reprocess a traumatic event. When the traumatic event has been reprocessed and the client reports a relaxing of their body, a positive belief is paired with the memory of the event. In subsequent sessions, the counselor will reevaluate the intensity of the memory to determine if more reprocessing is needed.

If you have further questions or are interested in AF-EMDR sessions, please contact MyCounselor Online about setting up a session. We look forward to serving you!

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This article is based on scientific evidence and clinical experience, written by a licensed professional and fact-checked by experts.

About the Author
September Trent
September Trent

September Trent MS, LPC has a Masters in Counseling. She is also an Attachment Focused EDMR therapist trained by the Parnell Institute. She is a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC), holding her license in Missouri.

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