How Does EMDR Therapy Work?

EMDR therapy is a relatively new form of therapy that has been getting a lot of buzz in recent years. But what is it exactly? How does it work? And what can it be used for? Despite the mystery surrounding EMDR, research shows that this therapy treatment is highly effective at treating a wide range of psychological issues.

So What Exactly Is EMDR Therapy?

EMDR therapy is a psychological treatment used to help people who have experienced trauma. But this treatment can also help people with anxiety, depression, and other mental health challenges.

The acronym EMDR stands for eye movement desensitization and reprocessing. This form of therapy uses a combination of eye movements, rhythmic sounds, and different types of touch to help people process and work through trauma so they can heal and move on with their lives. During EMDR therapy sessions, therapists guide people through different memories and emotions, helping them release any negative feelings attached to those memories.

Although EMDR therapy is a relatively new treatment, it is considered one of the most effective treatments for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), with studies demonstrating that EMDR therapy can reduce the symptoms of PTSD by up to 50%. EMDR therapy has also been found to be an effective treatment for anxiety, depression, and phobias.

How Does EMDR Therapy Work?

EMDR therapy is based on the idea that we adaptively process information and that eye movements can help reduce trauma’s negative effects. EMDR therapy uses adaptive information processing, mindfulness, and bilateral stimulation to help reduce the impact of trauma.

Thanks to adaptive information processing, the brain can process and learn from experiences, even if they are traumatic. When we experience a traumatic event, our brains may not be able to process the event healthily. As a result, memories of the event can become stuck in our minds, causing us to relive the trauma repeatedly. When this happens, our brains can get stuck in the ” fight-or-flight” mode. This can lead to us constantly feeling on edge and having trouble functioning in our everyday lives. EMDR therapy uses bilateral stimulation to help the brain process challenging experiences. This helps to “unstick” the trauma memory to be processed healthily.

Bilateral stimulation uses a variety of methods, such as eye movements, audio, or touch to stimulate the left brain hemisphere and then the right hemisphere. This stimulation helps the brain access, process, and heal memories and emotions stuck in the brain.

EMDR therapy is often used in conjunction with mindfulness-based therapies, as mindfulness can help reduce the arousal and reactivity that are often part of the experience of trauma.

Phases of EMDR Therapy

EMDR therapy typically takes place in 8 different phases, including:

1. History & Treatment Planning. During this stage, your therapist will review details about your symptoms and health history to get a better understanding of your needs. This includes briefly discussing any trauma or triggers, memories that may be problematic for sleep therapy sessions later on down the line, as well as what types would work best if they’re different from past experiences.

2. Preparation. This phase focuses on learning techniques to help manage and cope with the emotional or psychological stress caused by confronting negative memories. This is called “resourcing,” which can allow for more effective handling of any uncomfortable feelings that may surface during treatment sessions.

3. Assessment. Your therapist will help you select a specific memory to target. You will be asked to notice any relevant aspects of the memory, like:

  • Painful emotions
  • Physical sensations
  • Intrusive thoughts or images
  • Distressing or unwanted self-beliefs or core values

4. Desensitization. During this phase, you will focus on the targeted memory while guided through bilateral stimulation. This can involve specific side-to-side eye movements, tapping your hands rhythmically, listening to audio tones, or viewing blinking lights.

5. Installation. In this stage of treatment, you will “install” a positive self-belief, core value, or image to replace the unwanted one you identified during the assessment phase. You will focus on this belief through another repetition of bilateral stimulation.

6. Body scan. At this point in EMDR, your therapist will ask you to identify any uncomfortable physical pain or sensations in your body. They’ll guide you through another round of bilateral stimulation if you notice any.

7. Closure. At the end of your therapy session, your therapist will ask how you are doing. They might also talk about relaxation techniques or things that can help you keep improving.

8. Re-evaluation. This phase begins during the next therapy session. Your therapist will ask you about the memories and feelings from the previous session. You will talk about how it went and identify any progress. If the memories still cause distress, your therapist might work on them more in subsequent sessions. If not, they’ll likely suggest moving on to new targets. The cycle can repeat until the problem is completely resolved.

What To Expect During EMDR Therapy Sessions?

Most EMDR therapy sessions last anywhere from 60 to 90 minutes. During the session, the therapist will ask you to focus on a specific memory or event. As this happens, the therapist will then ask you to follow their finger with your eyes as they move them back and forth across your field of vision. This allows your brain to process the memory or event in a new way.

During this process, you can expect to:

  • Talk about traumatic memories and events. Traumatic memories can be difficult to communicate, but there are a few things that you can do to help a traumatic memory become more manageable. First, don’t be afraid to be vulnerable. Your therapist is a safe place. Second, try to be as specific as possible when talking about the event. This can help to ground the memory and make it feel less overwhelming. Finally, don’t hesitate to ask for help if you’re struggling to cope with a traumatic memory.
  • Express your feelings. Being open and expressing your feelings may seem like a simple task, but for some people, it can be incredibly difficult. Traumatic memories can be tough to communicate, but being open and honest about your feelings is an important part of self-care. Expressing your feelings can also help you release traumatic memories and develop a positive outlook on life.
  • Engage your senses. Bilateral stimulation involves engaging the senses to address traumatic memories. This can be done through several activities, such as using light and sound to stimulate both sides of the brain. Other forms of bilateral stimulation include tapping or listening to music.

Let Us Help You Move Past Traumatic Memories & Experiences

Research shows that EMDR is highly effective at treating various psychological issues. If you’re ready to move past traumatic memories, contact us today and let us help you get started on your journey to healing.


Reviewed by Ed Lepage, Executive Director

Ed Lepage completed the drug and alcohol certificate program at the University of Massachusetts Boston and has been working in the substance abuse dependency field for the past seven years. He has also worked extensively in peer recovery-based programs offering “real-world experience” to those that suffer from substance use dependency. Full Bio

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