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What is EMDR?

Updated: Jul 6, 2022


Sometimes we experience traumas or events in our lives that leave us with unseen scars or wounds. These psychological wounds, if untreated, can fester and affect not only our lives but also those around us, in particular immediate family members.

What is EMDR?

EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) is a psychotherapy for trauma resolution that enables people to heal from the symptoms and emotional distress that are the result of disturbing life experience. Using the detailed protocols and procedures learned in EMDR therapy training sessions, clinicians help clients activate their natural healing processes.

How do I know if I need EMDR?

A good way to assess if you have need for EMDR therapy is to ask yourself if you have experienced the following symptoms:

  • Flashbacks or nightmares of traumatic events

  • Emotional numbness

  • Avoidance of places, people, and activities

  • Difficulty sleeping or concentrating

  • Feeling jumpy, or being easily irritated and angered.

  • Depression

  • Anxiety

  • Eating Disorders

  • Substance Abuse and addiction

  • Grief and Loss

EMDR has been found to effectively treat not only PTSD, but anxiety and mood disorders, including depression, and panic disorders. There are some particular areas of mental health that EMDR is effective for treating such as panic disorders, panic attacks, and agoraphobia.

How does EMDR work to heal past traumas?

Our brains have a natural way to recover from traumatic memories and events. This process involves communication between the amygdala (the alarm signal for stressful events), the hippocampus (which assists with learning, including memories about safety and danger), and the prefrontal cortex (which analyzes and controls behavior and emotion). Many times traumatic experiences can be managed and resolved spontaneously, they may not be processed without help. Stress responses are part of our natural fight, flight, or freeze instincts; when distress from a disturbing event remains, the upsetting images, thoughts, and emotions may create feelings of overwhelm, of being back in that moment, or of being “frozen in time.” EMDR therapy helps the brain process these memories and allows normal healing to resume. The experience is still remembered, but the fight, flight, or freeze response from the original event is dissipated.

What Does EMDR Therapy Feel Like

Typically, in EMDR, you will make spontaneous new insights and begin to notice that you feel less overwhelmed recollecting aspects of your chosen target, and you could potentially start to think about related memories that are painful or unpleasant. That is how EMDR therapy will make you feel like, and that means your mind is beginning to heal.

The EMDR Phases

EMDR therapy involves attention to three time periods: the past, present, and future. Focus is given to past disturbing memories and related events. Also, it is given to current situations that cause distress, and to developing the skills and attitudes needed for positive future actions. With EMDR therapy, these items are addressed using an eight-phase treatment approach. During EMDR treatment, the client will focus on a traumatic memory while their eyes track the therapist’s hand movements, or other device. This bilateral stimulation is related to Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep functions and helps the client process their memories. In contrast to standard PTSD treatments, EMDR not only closes mental wounds, but it also transforms them into personal empowerment.

Phase 1: History And Treatment Planning

The first phase is a history-taking session. The therapist assesses the client’s readiness and develops a treatment plan. The client and therapist identify possible targets for EMDR processing. These include distressing memories and current situations that cause emotional distress. Other targets may include related incidents in the past. Initial EMDR processing may be directed to childhood events rather than to adult-onset stressors or the identified critical incident if the client had a problematic childhood. Clients generally gain insight into their situations, the emotional distress resolves and they start to change their behaviors. The length of treatment depends upon the number of traumas and the age of PTSD onset.

Phase 2: Preparation

During the second phase of treatment, the therapist ensures that the client has several different ways of handling emotional distress. The therapist may teach the client a variety of imagery and stress reduction techniques the client can use during and between sessions. The goal of EMDR therapy is to produce rapid and effective change while the client maintains equilibrium during and between sessions.

Phase 3-6

These four phases are explained under these terms; Assessment, Desensitization, Installation, and Body Scan. Phases three to six, a target is identified and processed using EMDR therapy procedures.

These involve the client identifying 3 things:

  • The vivid visual image related to the memory

  • A negative belief about self

  • Related emotions and body sensations

In addition, the client identifies a positive belief. The therapist helps the client rate the positive belief as well as the intensity of the negative emotions. After this, the client is instructed to focus on the image, negative thoughts, and body sensations while simultaneously engaging in EMDR processing using sets of bilateral stimulation. These sets may include eye movements, taps, or tones. The type and length of these sets are different for each client. At this point, the EMDR client is instructed to just notice whatever spontaneously happens.

After each set of stimulation, the clinician instructs the client to let his/her mind go blank and to notice whatever thought, feeling, image, memory, or sensation comes to mind. Depending upon the client’s report, the clinician will choose the next focus of attention. These repeated sets with directed focused attention occur numerous times throughout the session. If the client becomes distressed or has difficulty in progressing, the therapist follows established procedures to help the client get back on track.

When the client reports no distress related to the targeted memory, they are asked to think of the preferred positive belief that was identified at the beginning of the session. At this time, the client may adjust the positive belief if necessary and then focus on it during the next set of distressing events until it feels true for them.

Phase 7: Closure

In phase seven, closure, the therapist asks the client to keep a log during the week. The log should document any related material that may arise. It serves to remind the client of the self-calming activities that were mastered in phase two.

Phase 8: Reevaluation

The next session begins with phase eight. Phase eight consists of examining the progress made thus far. The EMDR treatment processes all related historical events, current incidents that elicit distress, and future events that will require different responses. If the client has multiple traumas, this phase will identify those areas and the process will begin again with a new target trauma.

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