In 1990 psychologist Francine Shapiro developed a new type of psychotherapy known as Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing or EMDR. EMDR therapy is an effective treatment option for people suffering from anxiety, panic, PTSD, or trauma. It’s a way to get past your past.

According to the EMDR Research Foundation, EMDR has been clinically validated by more than 30 randomized, controlled studies (the gold standard for clinical studies).1

EMDR is an integrative psychotherapy approach that has been extensively researched and proven effective for the treatment of trauma. EMDR therapy includes a set of standardized protocols that incorporate elements from many different treatment approaches and has relieved psychological trauma for millions of people of all ages.

What is EMDR?

EMDR therapy is a phased, focused approach to treating trauma and other symptoms by reconnecting the traumatized person in a safe and measured way to the images, self-thoughts, emotions, and body sensations associated with the trauma, and allowing the natural healing powers of the brain to move toward adaptive resolution.

It is based on the idea that symptoms occur when trauma and other negative or challenging experiences overwhelm the brain’s natural ability to heal, and that the healing process can be facilitated and completed through bilateral stimulation while the client is re-experiencing the trauma in the context of the safe environment of the therapist’s office (dual awareness).

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Romas Buivydas, PhD, LMHC, vice president of clinical development for Spectrum Health Systems, says EMDR therapy is an eight-phase treatment. “It identifies and addresses traumatic experiences that have overwhelmed the brain’s natural coping capacity, and, as a result, have created traumatic symptoms, such as flashbacks or anxiety, or harmful coping strategies, such as isolating behavior and self-medication with alcohol or drugs,” he explains.

How Does EMDR Work?

Through EMDR, individuals safely reprocess traumatic information until it is no longer psychologically disruptive to their lives. Over time, exposure to traumatic memories will no longer induce negative feelings and distressing symptoms.

EMDR has eight phases of treatment:2

  • History taking
  • Client preparation
  • Assessment
  • Desensitization
  • Installation
  • Body scan
  • Closure
  • Reevaluation of treatment effect

During EMDR, the person being treated focuses on a disruptive memory and identifies the belief they hold about themselves. If it is connected to a negative memory the technique teaches the person to change their view of themselves by learning to associate it with a positive belief instead.

For example, it is common for victims of abuse to feel they “deserved” the abuse. EMDR helps the person to see that as self-destructive thinking. So “I deserved it” becomes “I am a worthwhile and good person in control of my life.”

All the sensations and emotions associated with the memory are identified. The individual then reviews the memory while focusing on an external stimulus that creates rapid (or bilateral) eye movement. Typically this is done by watching the therapist move two fingers. After each set of bilateral movements (usually involving both eyes), the individual is asked how they feel.

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This process continues until the trauma has been processed and the memory is no longer disturbing to the individual. The selected positive belief is then “installed”, via bilateral movement, to replace the negative belief.

Sessions typically last for an hour. It is theorized that EMDR works because the “bilateral stimulation” bypasses the area of the brain that processes memories and has become stuck due to the trauma. When a difficult/traumatizing memory is stuck, it prevents the brain from properly processing and storing the memory.

During EMDR, individuals process the memory safely and that leads to a peaceful resolution. The experience results in increased insight regarding both previously disturbing events and the negative thoughts about themselves that have grown out of the original traumatic event.

Who Is EMDR Appropriate For?

EMDR therapy has been endorsed by the American Psychiatric Association and the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies. The United States Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), the Department of Defense, and overseas organizations, including the United Kingdom Department of Health and the Israeli National Council for Mental Health have also endorsed this treatment.

According to the EMDR Research Foundation, over 30 studies have documented the effectiveness of EMDR therapy over the past 30 years for problems such as rape and sexual abuse, combat trauma, childhood trauma and neglect, life-threatening accidents, and symptoms such as anxiety, depression, and substance abuse.1

Edy Nathan, MA, LCSW, is a licensed psychotherapist with over 20 years of experience as a certified EMDR practitioner. Nathan believes that this type of therapy has the ability to heal people who are suffering from all types of trauma.

“What the technique does is shift the way we process the presence of the physical, emotional, and psychological effects related specifically to a traumatic event,” she says. “The pain and sense of danger carried within the self after a traumatic event grips the soul with such intensity that it leads into a sense of being in emotional quicksand. EMDR works to disarm belief systems, also known as cognition, and changes the negative cognition through a series of lateral eye movements, tapping, or sound, while the client is asked to create the picture of pain and danger (trauma) that most disturbs them.”

Does EMDR Therapy Actually Work?

According to the EMDR Institute, Inc., some of the studies on this type of therapy show that 84-90% of single-trauma victims no longer have post-traumatic stress disorder after only three 90-minute sessions.

Another study, funded by the HMO Kaiser Permanente, found that 100% of the single-trauma victims and 77% of multiple trauma victims no longer were diagnosed with PTSD after only six 50-minute sessions. In another study, 77% of combat veterans were free of PTSD in 12 sessions.

What is also different about this type of therapeutic intervention is that the therapist does not conversationally converse with the client while going through the process.

Following an EMDR session, it’s not unusual for sleep to be impacted. Vivid dreams are common as well as feeling more sensitive to interactions with others and to external stimuli.

EMDR Therapy is not the only form of therapy appropriate for people dealing with anxiety, PTSD, panic, and/or trauma. EMDR therapy is often conducted in conjunction with other forms of therapy.

Speak with your therapist about combinations of therapy or other therapeutic techniques that might be effective for you.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and  rational emotional behavioral therapy (REBT) can also be effective for anxiety and trauma.

EMDR can also be paired with at-home therapeutic techniques. Check out our round-up of mental health apps here.

EMDR Resources

To find an EMDR therapist, both the EMDR Foundation and the EMDR Institute can connect you with clinicians trained in this technique.

For affordable therapy options, read six strategies for finding affordable therapy

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Last Updated: Aug 9, 2021