What Is EMDR Therapy and How Does It Work?

What Is EMDR Therapy?

EMDR therapy helps the brain process thoughts and feelings as it did before a trauma.
EMDR therapy helps the brain process thoughts and feelings as it did before a trauma.

When you get angry or feel sad because someone hurt your feelings, your brain helps you work through it. But when you experience trauma, your brain may not be able to process it.

In some cases, you freeze that moment in time and replay it when images, sounds, smells, feelings, or certain dates or seasons trigger it. The trauma changes you and the way you see the world.

EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) is a therapy that helps your brain process thoughts and feelings like it did before the trauma. You don’t forget what happened, but you don’t relive it over and over. You still have feelings about it, but they’re not as intense. Here’s info about how the therapy works, what it feels like, and how it might help you or someone close to you deal with the after effects of trauma.

How Does EMDR Therapy Work?

In this type of therapy, you focus momentarily on the traumatic memory. At the same time, a therapist directs you to move your eyes in various directions. This can help weaken the emotions you usually feel in response to the memory.

With a therapist, you pinpoint a negative image from the traumatic memory along with a belief or feeling you have related to your trauma. You don’t have to go into detail. Then you choose a positive belief you’d like to feel about your trauma -- something you’d feel if the pain was behind you.

While you focus on the traumatic event, your therapist guides you through sets of side-to-side eye movements. You may follow your therapist’s hand with your eyes or watch a light move from one side of a board to the other. Depending on your therapist’s approach, it might involve sounds or taps instead of lights. You repeat this process until the event feels less traumatic.

The combination of focus on the memory and eye movements or sounds lets you process the memory safely. It also changes the way your brain stores the memory.

8 Different Phases of EMDR Therapy

There’s a lot more to EMDR than eye movements and memories. It’s important to build trust with your therapist. You’ll also plan ways to take care of yourself when big emotions come up during the process.

Though the approach may look slightly different for each therapist, EMDR has eight phases:

  1. History and treatment planning: You’ll talk about your trauma, behaviors, and symptoms. Your therapist will create a plan based on your needs.
  2. Preparation: You’ll learn what EMDR is, how it works, and what you can expect during and after treatment. This is also a good time to get comfortable with your therapist so you feel safe to say whatever you need in future sessions.
  3. Assessment: This phase goes deeper into the target of your therapy and the negative beliefs that come with it.
  4. Desensitization: This is where the bilateral eye movements come in. As you work through the trauma, other memories may come up.
  5. Installation: In this phase, you focus on the positive belief that replaces the negative one. For example, “I am powerless” becomes “I’m in control now.”
  6. Body scan: You focus on your trauma again to see if you feel the same tension in your body as you did before you started EMDR.
  7. Closure: This is part of every phase. You’ll learn what to expect from one session to the next and ways to deal with feelings or new memories that pop up.
  8. Reevaluation: This is a check-in at the beginning of each session to mark progress and make sure you’re on target for success.

How Long Does It Take For EMDR to Work?

Just as every trauma is different, the timeline for EMDR is different for each person. Plan on 1 to 3 months of weekly sessions that last an hour or more. You’ll likely feel better during the process, not just at the end.

What Are the Benefits of EMDR Therapy?

Though therapists most commonly use EMDR to stop the cycle of PTSD, which stands for posttraumatic stress disorder, it can also treat:

Does EMDR Work?

Studies show that EMDR is an effective way to reduce or get rid of PTSD symptoms completely. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Department of Defense, and mental health organizations worldwide use it.

Are There Any Side Effects of EMDR?

You may feel worse for a short time while you work through the process. It’s also common to have vivid dreams.

Do All Therapists Do EMDR?

Accredited EMDR practitioners have specific training in this type of therapy. Search the EMDR International Association’s directory to find a therapist near you.

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EMDR Research Foundation: “For the Public: What is EMDR Therapy?”

EMDR International Association: “Experiencing EMDR Therapy,” “Find an EMDR Therapist Directory.”

EMDR Humanitarian Assistance Programs: “What is EMDR?”

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs: “Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) for PTSD.”

American Psychological Association: “Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) Therapy.”

Mayo Clinic: “Dissociative disorders.”

EMDR Institute, Inc. “Frequent Questions.”