The Basics of EMDR

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing works by using eye movements to help someone focus on a trauma memory, a negative thought, or certain emotions in a way that desensitizes them to the fear, anxiety, or other emotion associated with what they are focusing on. Eye movement is then also used to help the person process those thoughts and feelings in a more positive way so they can replace it with a positive thought or belief.

During EMDR sessions, the person being treated must focus on something, following it with their eyes to create the correct eye movement. That might be an image or the therapist’s finger, which causes people to confuse EMDR with hypnosis. But EMDR is not a method for putting someone under hypnosis so that they act in certain ways without realizing it. Instead, it focuses on helping a person take better control of their thoughts, beliefs, emotions, and reactions.

Treatment name Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing
Conditions commonly treated Post-traumatic stress disorder, some addiction disorders, anxiety, phobias, eating disorders, sexual dysfunction, and stress related to chronic physical disease
Who provides the treatment? A licensed therapist experienced in EMDR
Where is the treatment provided? EMDR can be provided in an inpatient or outpatient clinic setting or in a therapist’s office.
How old is the therapy? EMDR was originally developed as a therapy technique in the mid-1980s.
How long does the treatment take? EMDR is usually administered over the course of around a dozen therapy sessions, which take approximately one hour each.
Is EMDR effective? The efficacy of EMDR is still being studied with regard to numerous conditions, but clinical trials and studies through the years have shown it to be effective for treating many people with PTSD.
Is EMDR safe? For most people, EMDR is considered to be a relatively safe therapeutic treatment.
Can EMDR be used with children? EMDR has been used to treat children age 4 to 18 for PTSD and other disorders.

Background of EMDR

EMDR was developed by Francine Shapiro, Ph.D. She was walking in a park one day while contemplating some distressful memories. She notices as she was walking and looking around at the landscape that certain eye movements seemed to reduce her distress by desensitizing her to it.

Shapiro worked with others and discovered that eye movements had this impact on most people. And while learning about an eye movement that could reduce distress would have been a good thing, Shapiro went even further, developing a therapy methodology around her discovery.

How EMDR Works & What It's Used For

EMDR combines Shapiro’s revelation about eye movement with best practices associated with other therapies, such as cognitive behavioral therapy. The combined EMDR therapy helps people reduce the impact of distressful thoughts on their feelings and behaviors and learn to replace unhealthy behaviors with healthier coping mechanisms.

While EMDR was first developed as a treatment for PTSD, therapists have also found ways to incorporate it into treatments for a wide range of mental and physical health conditions, including, but not limited to:

  • Some addiction disorders
  • Anxiety
  • Phobias
  • Eating disorders
  • Sexual dysfunction

How EMDR Is Administered

EMDR is administered by a licensed clinical social worker, a therapist, or another mental health professional. It can be administered as part of an overall inpatient or outpatient treatment program or via individual counseling sessions in the therapist’s office.

The therapy takes course over eight to 12 sessions and follows a structured approach that covers eight phases.

  • Phase 1: The therapist takes a history of the situation, asking the person questions about their trauma, history, and current state to assess the needs to be addressed during treatment.
  • Phase 2: The therapist provides full instruction on the EMDR method and works with the client to practice the eye movements. He or she also provides instructions and tools to help the client prepare for dealing with any side effects of the treatment in the next few weeks.
  • Phase 3: The memory of the traumatic event (or negative thought or behavior) is activated by talking about it and leading the person to focus on it. The therapist assesses emotional and cognitive disturbance during this time to understand the baseline with which the person approaches these issues.
  • Phase 4: The person focuses on the memory and engages in specific eye movements, reporting their emotions and responses to the therapist. This, along with support and instruction from the therapist, continues until the person is able to report not feeling distressed about the memory or thought.
  • Phase 5: The therapist works with the person to install and strengthen new, positive thought processes.
  • Phase 6: The person focuses on the memory or other negative thought while also considering, slowly and bit by bit, their entire body. They report any physical responses to the therapist who helps them use eye movement or other tools to process and diminish the unwanted response.
  • Phase 7: This phase is a form of closure on the session. If full processing of the memory or thought being addressed in the session wasn’t possible, the therapist provides instructions so that the individual has coping mechanisms to help keep themselves safe until the next session.
  • Phase 8: This phase usually begins the next session and takes the place of Phase 1. It’s an evaluation of where the person is after the last session and what issues might have arisen since. This information helps the therapist better target the new session.

Side Effects of EMDR

While EMDR is considered safe and has fewer known side effects than most medications, it can cause heightened awareness of thoughts and memories. That awareness, which is important to the success of the therapy session, doesn’t end automatically with the session. Carrying it back into regular life can cause some issues or trigger latent problems. This is why the therapist takes steps to ensure someone has appropriate social support and has been given instructions for dealing with such a possibility between treatment sessions.

Another potential side effect of EMDR is very realistic, and sometimes unpleasant, dreams. If individuals experience these symptoms, they tend to be worse during the beginning of treatment and resolve as more negative thoughts and memories are fully processed.

How to Get Help & Additional Resources

This guide is not intended to offer treatment advice or recommendations. It’s meant for informational purposes only as an education tool about EMDR therapy. Always consult your medical provider or mental health professional before engaging in any form of treatment or if you feel you need help for any mental health or addiction disorder.