Developed by trauma therapists, EMDR helps your brain process and release traumatic memories in an unusual way — through your eye movements.
If you’ve experienced trauma, you’ll know just how much hold it can have over you. Intense dreams, flashbacks, and anxiety-induced isolation can bring your daily life to a halt. Sometimes, it can be a challenge to leave your home at all.
While traditional talk therapy and medications are the main treatments for post-traumatic stress, you might be wondering what other options are out there.
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy was developed by Dr. Francine Shapiro in 1987 to treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This therapy uses eye movements (or sometimes rhythmic tapping) to change the way a memory is stored in the brain, allowing you to process it.
This therapy aims to help you work through painful memories with your body’s natural functions to recover from the effects of trauma.
EMDR therapy is considered a new, nontraditional form of psychotherapy. Therapists mostly use it to treat PTSD or trauma responses.
This therapy is based on the theory that traumatic events aren’t properly processed in the brain when they happen. This is why they continue to affect us — with nightmares, flashbacks, and feelings of the trauma happening again — long after the actual trauma is over.
When something reminds you of the trauma, your brain and body react as though it’s happening again. The brain isn’t able to tell the difference between the past and the present.
This is where EMDR comes in. The idea, known as the adaptive information processing model, is that you can “reprocess” a disturbing memory to help you move past it.
This therapy aims to change the way that the traumatic memories are stored in your brain. Once your brain properly processes the memory, you should be able to remember the traumatic events without experiencing the intense, emotional reactions that characterize post-traumatic stress.
During an EMDR therapy session, your therapist will ask you to briefly focus on a trauma memory. Then, they’ll instruct you to perform side-to-side eye movements while thinking of the memory. This engages both sides of your brain and is termed bilateral stimulation.
If you have visual processing issues, your therapist may use rhythmic tapping on both of your hands or play audio tones directed towards both ears.
One theory behind how EMDR works is that it helps the two sides of the brain to communicate with one another — the left side, which specializes in logic and reason, and the right side, which specializes in emotion.
Experts don’t know exactly how EMDR works. Ongoing investigations point out that it’s a complex form of therapy and likely has many mechanisms of action.
A review of 87 studies on EMDR found that two theories held the most promise: the working memory theory and the physiological changes theory.
Working memory theory
According to this theory, EMDR works through competition between where the brain stores information on sight and sound and where it processes working memory.
In this theory, recalling a memory at the same time your eyes are moving back and forth forces your brain to split its resources. You can’t dedicate all of your focus to memory recall because you’re also focusing on visual stimulation.
This split-focus can make any disturbing images you recall less vivid, and you may feel comfortably distanced from them. In this way, you might feel the emotional impact of the memories less strongly.
The bilateral brain stimulation might also help you feel more relaxed. As the memories grow less and less vivid, your brain might start to associate the memory recall with relaxation rather than emotional shock, which results in desensitization.
Physiological changes theory
Some researchers have found that performing eye movements in EMDR can invoke physiological changes in your body — a lowered heart rate, slower breathing, and decreased skin conductance — all of which are markers of relaxation.
This suggests that something about bilateral eye movements can alter how your nervous system is responding, allowing you to move away from an anxious fight, flight, or freeze response and toward nervous system regulation.
Other theories about the way EMDR therapy works include:
- Rapid eye movement (REM) sleep phase replication. Back-and-forth eye movements may help the brain consolidate memories in the same way it does during REM sleep.
- Thalmo-cortical binding. Eye movements may directly impact a brain region called the thalamus, which may cause a cascade of cognitive processes that allow greater control over emotional distress.
- Structural brain differences. Structural and functional brain differences may exist in people who respond well to EMDR therapy.
Much of the research involving EMDR therapy is on its use in working with trauma and treating PTSD.
A mental health professional may also recommend this therapy for:
- panic attacks
- bipolar disorder
- dissociative disorder
- recovering from grief
- eating disorders
- pain management
- personality disorders
- performance anxiety
- sleep disturbances
- substance use disorder or addiction
With EMDR, you’ll usually have one or two sessions per week, about 6 to 12 sessions in total. You may require more or fewer sessions depending on your individual response to therapy.
There are eight phases to EMDR therapy. Here’s what to expect:
Phase 1: History taking
First, you’ll work with your therapist to develop a treatment plan and treatment goals. This might include talking about your history, what emotional triggers and symptoms you experience, and what you’d like to achieve from therapy.
Your therapist might also determine whether you’d benefit from therapies or treatments alongside EMDR.
Phase 2: Preparation
Your therapist will then walk you through the therapeutic process, explain how EMDR works, and answer any questions.
EMDR therapy often takes multiple sessions to see progress. Your therapist can help you develop coping methods to help you manage your emotions both during and between sessions. This can include stress reduction techniques, such as breathing exercises and resourcing techniques.
Phase 3: Assessing the target memory
The goal of phase 3 is to identify and evaluate the memory causing your emotional distress.
Imagery, cognition, affect, and body sensation related to the memory are all assessed on diagnostic scales. Your therapist will use this as a starting point to track your progression through the EMDR treatments.
Phase 4–7: Treatment (desensitization, reaction, installation, closure)
Phase 4 marks the beginning of the memory desensitization process.
During your session, you’ll be asked to recall parts of a distressing memory. As you do this, your therapist will cue you to perform specific eye movements.
Once you’ve finished recalling the memory or feeling, you may be asked about the thoughts, feelings, and reactions you experienced during the recall.
Noting these responses is another means of helping track the progress of your EMDR therapy. The goal is to “install” improved emotional responses and positive beliefs within each session.
Remember, your mental health team has your best interests in mind at all times during your therapy session. If you experience distress, your therapist can help you work through those feelings and come back to the present.
At the end of your session, your therapist will determine whether the memory was fully reprocessed based on your responses. If the reprocessing is incomplete, they’ll do a resource or stress-reduction exercise with you in order to ensure that you feel OK before ending the session.
They’ll also review which coping strategies you can use to manage your emotions and keep yourself safe until the next session. Not all memories can be processed in one session.
Phase 8: Re-evaluation
At the end of each therapy session, both you and your therapist will evaluate the effects of the treatments, what memories have been uncovered, and which memories to target next time.
At the end of your therapy program, after you’ve targeted all the memories you’ve wished to, your therapist will complete a Future Template. In this exercise, they’ll use the bilateral stimulation again as you walk through an imagined future scenario of handling any previously triggering situations.
While the exact mechanisms behind EMDR remain up for debate, this therapy is recognized as an effective treatment by a number of national and international organizations, including the World Health Organization (WHO) and the American Psychiatric Association (APA).
A 2018 review provides supportive evidence for the mechanisms behind EMDR, and other research continues to support this therapy’s effectiveness.
In 2019, a narrative review looked into the results of seven randomized controlled trials that involved early EMDR interventions. The researchers concluded that EMDR early interventions significantly reduced symptoms of traumatic stress and prevented symptoms from becoming worse.
Other review studies have also found positive results from EMDR therapy:
- A 2018 review, conducted using eight databases of current studies, found that EMDR improved PTSD symptoms and was more effective compared to some traditional trauma therapies. However, they noted that much of the current evidence relies on small sample sizes.
- A 2018 review focused on 15 studies involving the use of EMDR therapy for children with PTSD. Researchers found that all studies in the review showed reduced PTSD symptoms, as well as other trauma-related symptoms, in children.
- A 2017 review looked at how EMDR therapy could impact conditions outside of PTSD. The results showed that EMDR therapy was a promising option for trauma-related symptoms in psychotic, affective, and chronic pain conditions.
- A 2017 review suggested that, though the research is currently limited, EMDR could have potential as a treatment for depression.
(Video) The Secrets of EMDR Therapy and How It Can Help You
Most forms of therapy can have side effects. These secondary reactions can range from mild to severe, even with EMDR therapy.
Before you start an EMDR program, a mental health professional may warn you about potential side effects, such as:
- strong emotional fluctuations
- increased recall of traumatic or distressing memories
- vivid, intense dreams
- feelings of vulnerability
- physical stress responses (nausea, headache)
Part of your EMDR therapy plan will may include developing ways to manage these challenges if they arise.
Your healthcare team can recommend focus and relaxation methods or prescribe medications to help manage symptoms during treatment.
Past memories can do far more than just create feelings of sadness. If you’ve experienced trauma, these memories can impair your daily functioning.
Sometimes memories are so painful that they “freeze” you in that moment. You’re unable to get out, and it may feel easier to avoid those thoughts completely.
When this happens, people, places, and events, continue to bring out the emotions of trauma long after it’s passed.
EMDR therapy can help you break the freeze cycle by allowing your brain to process memories in a less painful way.
EMDR can be an emotional process, but you’re never alone. If you’re considering self-harm or suicide, help is available right now:
- Call a crisis hotline, such as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.
- Text HOME to the Crisis Text Line at 741741.
To learn more about EMDR or to access online support networks, publications, therapist finders, and other resources, visit The EMDR International Association (EMDRIA).
What is EMDR therapy? Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy is a mental health treatment technique. This method involves moving your eyes a specific way while you process traumatic memories. EMDR's goal is to help you heal from trauma or other distressing life experiences.What are the benefits of EMDR therapy? ›
EMDR helps build connections between the physical body and the psychological mind, improving cognition. As traumatic events are broken down with a therapist during sessions, individuals can take a step back and see another viewing angle of the incident or incidents and reshape what occurred.How well does EMDR therapy work? ›
Is EMDR effective? According to the EMDR Institute, more than 30 controlled outcome studies on EMDR therapy have shown that it has positive effects. In some of these studies, as many as 90% of trauma survivors appeared to have no PTSD symptoms after just three sessions.Can you benefit from EMDR? ›
EMDR therapy has many important benefits for people struggling with PTSD, anxiety, or depression. Even if you don't have a diagnosed mental health disorder, you may have a valuable experience with EMDR if you find yourself struggling with negative thought patterns or poor self-image.How does EMDR work in the brain? ›
EMDR works by stimulating the brain in ways that lead it to process unprocessed or unhealed memories, leading to a natural restoration and adaptive resolution, decreased emotional charge (desensitization, or the “D” of EMDR), and linkage to positive memory networks (reprocessing, or the “R” of EMDR).What are the 3 benefits of all forms of therapy? ›
- Therapy can help you learn life-long coping skills. ...
- Therapy can change how you interact with people in your life – in a good way. ...
- Therapy can make you feel happier. ...
- Through its link to happiness, therapy leads to more productivity. ...
- Therapy can help improve chronic stress.
Generally, it's common to feel lighter and less weighed down after going through EMDR. The problem that brought you to therapy often feels less significant, and old triggers won't have their usual effect. You'll likely find that you are no longer scared or anxious about things that once bothered you.How long do the effects of EMDR last? ›
During therapy or between sessions, clients may experience changes in physical sensations, disturbing dreams, and emotional pain. These side effects may last a few days after treatment. If someone goes through their EMDR sessions within a few months, they can expect side effects to dissipate when their sessions finish.What does EMDR not work well for? ›
Because stability must come first, you don't use EMDR to process trauma when a patient is actively abusively using alcohol, drugs, or something to help them feel less. You can't effectively practice EMDR phases 3 – 8 with someone who has yet to experience a safe, trusting relationship.Do you feel better after EMDR? ›
Once EMDR therapy is finished, most people can expect to feel a great deal of relief. Even though the traumatic memory may still come up, it won't have as much emotional charge. A person may feel more of a sense of calm and acceptance when thinking about the event.
If you're emotions feel overwhelming or if you tend to shut down when you feel an emotion you may not be ready for EMDR treatment. EMDR therapy relies on your body and mind's ability to process through your thoughts and feelings. If you're unable to process in that way, EMDR therapy may not be effective.Who is not a good candidate for EMDR? ›
There are some people for whom EMDR is not a good choice. Clients with a bipolar disorder or personality disorder diagnosis are not good candidates for EMDR.How long does it take for EMDR to work? ›
Each individual reacts differently to EMDR therapy, but as a general rule, a typical session will last anywhere between 60-90 minutes. Getting to the bottom of a traumatic memory and completely rewiring your brain can take anywhere between three to twelve sessions.How does EMDR help with anxiety? ›
EMDR helps process through the intensity of the emotions and helps you shift your attention to more positive, adaptive beliefs, naturally reducing your anxiety levels. During this process, I want you to notice any body sensations, images, beliefs and emotions that are coming up.Does EMDR release emotions? ›
EMDR therapy uses bilateral stimulation, right/left eye movement, or tactile stimulation, or sound, which repeatedly activates the opposite sides of the brain releasing emotional experiences that are "trapped" in the nervous system.Does EMDR unlock memory? ›
EMDR does not recover repressed memories.
EMDR only assists the brain in reprocessing unstable processed memories. If the brain has locked away a memory, it has done so for a reason. This therapy will not unlock something that it is not ready for.
Will EMDR Erase My Memory? No – EMDR Therapy cannot not get rid of a memory. EMDR Therapy also cannot change that fact that past negative experiences happened to you. However, EMDR Therapy will change how you feel when you bring a past event or memory to mind.What is the most successful form of therapy? ›
Cognitive behavioral therapy is considered the gold standard in psychotherapy.What is the most important thing in therapy? ›
The most important aspect of effective therapy is that the patient and the therapist work together to help the patient reach their goals in therapy.What are 4 things that can happen in therapy? ›
- Talk. Therapists have people talk about their feelings. ...
- Learn things. Therapists teach lessons about emotions, thoughts, coping skills, facing fears, and more. ...
- Practice new skills. ...
- Work out problems. ...
- Find your strengths.
EMDR is an eight-phase treatment method. History taking, client preparation, assessment, desensitization, installation, body scan, closure and reevaluation of treatment effect are the eight phases of this treatment which are briefly described.Is EMDR a form of hypnosis? ›
EMDR is NOT Hypnosis. EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) therapy is a psychotherapy technique used to help individuals overcome trauma and distressing memories. However, there is a common misconception that EMDR is a form of hypnotherapy.What trauma does EMDR treat? ›
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a psychotherapy—or talk therapy—for PTSD. EMDR can help you process upsetting memories, thoughts, and feelings related to the trauma. By processing these experiences, you can get relief from PTSD symptoms.