What Is EMDR Therapy?

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) is a psychotherapy (talk therapy) treatment that helps a person heal from traumatic experiences. EMDR is extensively researched and is recognized as an effective treatment by numerous national and international organizations. For people struggling with anxiety or trauma, EMDR can be a life-changing treatment option.

In this article, learn more about EMDR therapy, its benefits, how it works, and how to find a EMDR therapist.

What Is EMDR Therapy?

EMDR is a psychotherapy technique that combines structured therapy sessions and eye movements or other types of stimuli, such as sounds or taps. During sessions, clinicians use detailed protocols and procedures that are designed to help the brain access and process memories of traumatic and disturbing experiences.

While it was originally designed to treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD, long-lasting, distressing effects after experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event or series of events), EDMR has been applied to help with many other symptoms and conditions that bring people to therapy. These include anxiety and mood and substance use disorders.

What to Know About EMDR

Verywell / Danie Drankwalter

Benefits of EMDR Therapy

Some of the benefits of EMDR therapy compared with other types of psychotherapy include:

  • Generally takes fewer sessions for results to show
  • Does not include extended exposure to the distressing memory
  • Does not require a person to talk extensively about the details of their traumatic experiences
  • Does not involve homework assignments or challenging a person's thoughts and beliefs

How Does EMDR Work?

EMDR is based on the adaptive information processing (AIP) model. This model states that people all have a system they are born with that helps with processing new information, making sense of it, and storing it in their memories.

However, when a person has a traumatic or very distressing experience, this process breaks down and the memory and distorted thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations are maladaptively (inappropriately) stored. This inadequate processing of the experience leads to PTSD and other mental symptoms, such as anxiety, depression, and flashbacks.

Based on the AIP theory, when memories are adequately processed, the symptoms will resolve. EMDR helps a person process memories and gets their brain to store them in a new way that's associated with new thoughts and emotions. This supports healing by helping the brain to think and feel differently about past events and react differently when triggered by future events.

The Phases of EMDR Therapy

EMDR is a structured eight-phase treatment, which includes:

  • Phase 1: History taking: The therapist takes a full history and assessment of the client. They work together to identify which past memories to target in treatment, discuss current triggers, and plan future goals.
  • Phase 2: Preparing the client: The therapist explains how the treatment works and helps the client practice eye movements and other exercises.
  • Phase 3: Assessment: The therapist facilitates assessment, which is a way of activating the memory that is being targeted in the session. This includes identifying and assessing all the components of the memory, such as image, thoughts, feelings, and body sensations.
  • Phase 4: Desensitization: The client focuses on the memory while practicing the eye movement exercise and reports to the therapist what new thoughts have emerged. The therapist will determine what the client should focus on during the next brief session. Usually, the new thoughts that emerge will be the focus. This process is repeated until the original memory is no longer distressing.
  • Phase 5: Installation: Installation is the process of reinforcing the new thoughts, feelings, and beliefs related to the originally distressing memory.
  • Phase 6: Body scan: The therapist asks the client to observe the physical response while thinking about the incident as well as the new thoughts about the memory. If the client reports a negative physical response, more sessions of eye movement exercises are performed.
  • Phase 7: Closure: Closure ends the session. If the memory was not fully processed during this session, additional protocols and procedures are followed to help the client feel safe until the next session.
  • Phase 8: Reevaluation: The next session begins with the therapist evaluating the client's progress, discussing new memories that may have emerged since the last treatment, and working together with the client to choose which memory to target next.

What to Expect From EMDR Session

Typically, during an EMDR session, the therapist guides a person through the structured eight-step process. This process can help them discover insights and form new thoughts while focusing on the targeted memory and engaging in the eye movement or other exercises.

As the memory is processed, the person may begin to feel less overwhelmed or distressed when thinking about the different aspects of the memory. They potentially will begin to think about other painful or distressing memories related to the one being targeted in the session. This is a sign of the memory being processed and the brain beginning to heal.

After the session, a person should feel more empowered over their memories and their present situation. They also should be better able to handle future situations.

Effectiveness of EMDR

EMDR is widely considered one of the best treatments for PTSD and other trauma- and stress-related disorders. More than 30 positive controlled studies have been done on EMDR therapy, including some studies showing that 84%–94% of single-trauma victims no longer have PTSD after three 90-minute sessions.

It has been endorsed as an effective therapy by many organizations, including:

  • American Psychiatric Association
  • American Psychological Association
  • International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies (ISTSS)
  • National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)
  • Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)
  • Department of Veterans Affairs/Department of Defense
  • Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews
  • World Health Organization (WHO)

How to Find an EMDR Therapist

EMDR therapy should only be offered by trained and licensed mental health professionals. You can find an EMDR therapist using the EMDR International Association's (EMDRIA) Find an EMDR Therapist directory. If you are not searching the EMDRIA directory, considerations for finding a therapist include:

  • What is their level of training in EMDR and your specific problem or disorder?
  • Was their EMDR training approved by EMDRIA?
  • Are they informed on the latest protocols and developments in EMDR?
  • How many cases have they treated with your problem or disorder?
  • What is their success rate?

Mental Health Helpline

If you or a loved one is struggling with PTSD or another mental health condition, contact the SAMHSA National Helpline at 800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

Summary

EMDR is an extensively researched, effective form of psychotherapy that can help with resolving symptoms of many mental health disorders, especially PTSD. It is a therapy in which trained clinicians follow a structured protocol to help a person safely process unresolved, distressing memories that have been inadequately stored.

Through the EMDR session, a qualified healthcare provider facilities a series of eye movement exercises while prompting the client to consider different aspects of the memory. During this process, new insights and thoughts emerge, and the memory becomes less physically and mentally distressing to the client. This process is repeated until the client feels more empowered and in control of their past, present, and future.

Finding a skilled, licensed EMDR clinician is important. Make sure that your clinician is experienced in both EMDR protocols as well as your specific problem or disorder.

A Word From Verywell

Anyone can have traumatic experiences. While it may not always result in PTSD, traumatic experience can lead to other distressing mental health disorders. If you have experienced trauma, you may benefit from EMDR therapy. Speak with your trusted health mental professional to see if EMDR therapy may be able to help you with resolving your traumatic memories.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How does EMDR therapy change the brain?

    Some studies in patients with PTSD have shown the EMDR therapy changes the brain in the regions that help a person distinguish whether a threat is real or not. In essence, they become less hypervigilant, a state of constantly being on alert.

    Another change occurs in the area of the brain that helps a person make sense of new information. EMDR seems to help a person improve their thinking and processing.

  • Can EMDR treat other mental health conditions besides PTSD?

    EMDR was developed to treat traumatic memories, and its effectiveness has been proven in treating PTSD. However, it has also been used to help with symptoms of anxiety disorders, depression, bipolar disorders, dissociative disorders, eating disorders, substance use disorder, and sleep disturbance that arise from traumatic experiences.

  • Who should not do EMDR therapy?

    EMDR therapy should not be used by a person who is actively experiencing trauma or be attempted if a person is actively abusing alcohol, drugs, or other substances. It is also important to note that EMDR will only help resolve the mental symptoms associated with a traumatic experience. If a person's mental symptoms are not the result of a distressing experience, EMDR may not be helpful.

  • Is EMDR therapy the same as hypnosis?

    No, EMDR is a specific treatment method based on adaptive information processing theory while hypnosis is not. Some distinct differences between EMDR and hypnosis include that hypnosis puts the patient in a relaxed mental state with heightened suggestibility, while EMDR deliberately attempts to connect the patient with an emotionally disturbing experience.


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4 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. American Psychological Association. Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy.

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  4. EMDR International Association. About EMDR Therapy.