Reviewed by Laura Angers, LPC

Published 06/24/2022

What Is EMDR Therapy?

EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. It is a technique of interactive psychotherapy that is used in relieving an individual of psychological stress. It is a technique that has proven effective in treating trauma and PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder).

Person Eye

One EMDR session may last for about 90 minutes. While undergoing an EMDR therapy session, the therapist will direct your eye movement, moving their fingers in front of your face backward and forward as you start reliving the traumatic experiences in short doses. Gradually, your thoughts will be shifted by the therapist to more pleasant thoughts.

EMDR therapy is believed to be very effective; you are likely to face lesser levels of distress during reliving the traumatic events because your attention is drawn away. This creates the chance to expose the trauma-causing thoughts and memories without your mind putting up a strong psychological defense.

As time passes, the technique helps reduce the effect that the trauma-causing thoughts and memories have on you.

Benefits Of EMDR Therapy

Generally, EMDR is beneficial to persons who are struggling with trauma. Persons who have PTSD tend to enjoy the most benefits from sessions of EMDR therapy.

It has proven to be even more effective for individuals who find it difficult to discuss the traumatic experiences.

There is insufficient research to provide evidence of the effectiveness of EMDR in the following areas that EMDR therapy has been applied as a form of treatment. These areas include:

  • Anxiety
  • Addictions
  • Panic attacks
  • Depression
  • Eating disorders

How EMDR Therapy Works

There are eight separate phases into which EMDR therapy has been broken down. This means that to complete EMDR therapy, you may have to attend a number of therapy sessions. Typically, the treatment should take about 12 different therapy sessions to complete.

Phase 1

Phase 1 is the History and Treatment Planning Phase. During this phase, the therapist starts by reviewing your history. After which, they proceed to evaluating and deciding your position in the process of treatment. Then they draft out a treatment plan. This phase also includes getting you to discuss the trauma you may have experienced to recognize possible traumatic memories that may need to be treated particularly.

Man Wearing Black Polo Shirt and Gray Pants Sitting on White Chair

There is the likelihood that the initial phase of EMDR processing is directed towards events that may have occurred in your childhood instead of being directed towards more recent onset stressors that occurred as an adult. This is usually because certain critical incidents could have occurred in your childhood that played a strong role in influencing how you perceive other events, so it is necessary to address this.

Phase 2

Phase 2 is the Preparation Phase. In this phase, the therapist will help you through the learning process where you have to learn the various ways you can handle the psychological or emotional stress you might be facing.

Various techniques for stress management like mindfulness and deep breathing may be applied.

Phase 3

This phase is the Assessment Phase. During this phase of EMDR therapy, the therapist begins identifying particular memories and thoughts that will be targeted. Like physical sensations brought about by those memories and thoughts associated with each of the target memories and thoughts, all the components are also identified.

Phase 4, 5, 6, 7

Phases 4 to 7 are the treatment phases. During these phases, the therapist will start using the techniques of EMDR therapy in the treatment of those targeted memories and thoughts. During the sessions in these phases, the therapist will require you to focus on one negative memory, thought, or image.

At the same point in time, the therapist will give you specific eye movements to carry out. Depending on the nature of your case, the therapist may employ bilateral stimulation, which may consist of taps or any other movements incorporated into it.

Once you are done with the bilateral stimulation, the therapist will require that you allow your mind to go blank and then note the feelings and thoughts that you are experiencing all together. After identifying these feelings and thoughts, the therapist may require you to focus on that particular traumatic memory, or they may ask you to move on to some other memory.

Man in Black Jacket Lying on White Pillow

If you get distressed during this process, the therapist will help you return to the present before you continue with another traumatic memory. As time goes on, the distress you may be experiencing due to certain memories, thoughts, or images should begin to fade away.

Phase 8

Phase 8 is the final phase, and it is regarded as the Evaluation Phase. In this phase, you will be required to evaluate the progress you may have made after the sessions. The therapist that handled your sessions will also be required to do the same.

How Is EMDR Organized?

Therapy sessions for EMDR are individualized. This means that you will meet with the therapist by yourself and not with a group for each session.

Is EMDR Therapy Effective?

The EMDR therapy technique was developed by a psychologist, Francine Shapiro, in 1989. And ever since then, over 20,000 mental healthcare professionals have undergone training to use the technique.

Several independent and controlled researches have proven that EMDR therapy is an effective method for treating PTSD. Even the Department of Veterans Affairs puts it on their list of recommended treatment options for PTSD.

study conducted in 2012 on 22 persons showed that EMDR therapy was able to help about 77% of persons who had PTSD and psychotic disorder. It was noted that the delusions, hallucinations, and symptoms of anxiety and depression that they may have experienced showed significantly improved after the conclusion of the therapy sessions. Another noteworthy detail was that during the period of the treatment, the symptoms experienced did not aggravate.

A slightly older study made a juxtaposition of the typical prolonged exposure therapy and EMDR therapy. In this study, it was discovered that the EMDR was a more effective technique in treating PTSD symptoms. With EMDR therapy, it was also shown that the dropout rate was lesser than the exposure therapy group. However, both forms of therapy showed a drop in the severity of symptoms that accompany traumatic stress, which includes both depression and anxiety.

Several other smaller studies have also provided evidence to show that EMDR therapy is a treatment option that is not just effective on the short-term scale. A study conducted in 2004 evaluated people after some months when they were treated for PTSD using either the Standard Care treatment or EMDR therapy.

Man in Black Suit Sitting on Brown Couch

While the treatments were ongoing, and after the treatments' conclusion, it was noted that EMDR showed significant levels of efficacy in reducing the PTSD symptoms the patients were experiencing. Follow-ups were conducted after three months and six months, and at each of those times, it was discovered that the benefits of EMDR therapy were maintained even after the treatment's conclusion. Overall, it was proven in the study that persons who underwent EMDR therapy for PTSD experienced a long-lasting reduction in the severity of PTSD symptoms when compared to Standard Care.

Things To Note About EMDR Therapy

Professionals generally consider EMDR therapy a safe option in treating PTSD, as it has fewer side effects compared to the possible side effects that may accompany prescribed medications. That being said, there are still a few side effects that may show up.

EMDR therapy can cause a heightened sense of awareness in thinking, which most times does not stop when the sessions come to an end. This may cause you to feel light-headed. It may also cause you to experience vivid and realistic dreams.

Typically, it takes quite a few sessions using EMDR therapy for the treatment of PTSD. This simply means that EMDR therapy does not work overnight. It is a process that takes some time.

When some people start the EMDR therapy process, the start of the therapy may exceptionally trigger those who may just have started dealing with their traumatic experience, particularly because their focus may get heightened. The therapy is most likely to be effective when considering both the short term and the long term. However, there is a strong likelihood that most people may find moving through the treatment process quite emotionally stressful.

Discuss with your therapist regarding all this before or when you are about to start your treatment so that you will know how best to cope with these symptoms in case you experience any of them.

If you think you have PTSD, try to take this test to find out.