Learn / What Is Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), and Can It Work for You?

What Is Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), and Can It Work for You?

Kayla Gill
 October 1st, 2022|   Clinically Reviewed by 
Rajnandini Rathod

Talking about trauma isn’t easy—it’s often emotionally draining, and it can even be retraumatizing. That’s why alternative therapies like EMDR can be a helpful part of your treatment plan.

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) uses eye movements to reframe traumatic memories. While that might seem unusual, this therapy works for many people and can be effective in a short amount of time. Rehabs often use EMDR as a supplemental therapy to ease the intensity of trauma symptoms.

What is EMDR?

EMDR is a trauma treatment technique1 that helps you process disturbing memories. It was developed by psychologist Francine Shapiro, who got the idea while walking in a park. She noticed certain rapid eye movements decreased the intensity of her intrusive thoughts. Then she realized something important: if she controlled her eye movements while thinking about an upsetting memory, it reduced her anxious feelings.

Since then, EMDR has gained popularity. More clinicians are becoming certified to practice it, and more people are trying it.

Tony Tan, CEO of 180 Sanctuary At PuriPai Villa, explains its premise:

“Basically, we are using eye movement to desensitize and reprocess traumatic memories. We don’t erase the memory, but we can reduce the impact of the response.

Usually with someone who’s traumatized, their behavior seems to be paralyzed. When they can’t overcome certain kinds of strong emotions or flashbacks, that affects their daily functionality.

“So EMDR is mainly administered in treatment to help the person reduce their response to traumatic memories, to help them function better day-to-day. They can coexist with their memory, but we dull the traumatic response.”

How Do EMDR Sessions Work?

EMDR sessions usually last for about 50 to 90 minutes. Your therapist will help you determine how many sessions are necessary. This usually depends on the severity of your trauma.

According to standard treatment protocol, EMDR treatment should take place over 8 phases:2 but can also be used to treat the following conditions:

“My Traumatic Thoughts Don’t Come to the Forefront of My Everyday Life”

People with PTSD often experience flashbacks resulting from triggers related to a traumatic event. EMDR helps patients reprocess memories3 so they’re not as easily distressed when faced with those triggers.

Roger Rodriguez, a senior flight nurse who often went into life-threatening combat war zones, was diagnosed with PTSD4 after years in the field. Rodriguez said that after each session, he felt a “little weight” lifted off his shoulders. Eventually, he went from spending hours alone in his room to once again being the family man that everyone knew and loved.

“My traumatic thoughts don’t come to the forefront of my everyday life and consume my thoughts,” he said. “They have been processed and placed into long-term memory where they belong.”

Discover EMDR in Trauma Treatment

Trauma recovery has its challenges, but life on the other side of healing is so worth it. And in rehab, you’ll be surrounded by professionals who can help you see those challenges through in a safe and supported way.

Discover rehab centers with EMDR treatment to compare programs and speak with experts about trauma therapies that can help you.

Reviewed by Rajnandini Rathod

  1. Landin-Romero, R., Moreno-Alcazar, A., Pagani, M., & Amann, B. L. (2018). How does eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy work? A systematic review on suggested mechanisms of action. Frontiers in Psychology, 9, 1395. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.01395 []
  2. Phase 1: History Taking

    In this phase, your clinician will review your trauma history and create a treatment plan. This plan determines which memories and situations to focus on during EMDR, and in what order. For example, you may focus on childhood trauma first, and move onto adult issues later.

    Phase 2: Preparation and Stabilization

    Your therapist explains how treatment works and addresses any concerns you have. You’ll decide on a stop signal if you need to take a break from processing. You’ll also work together to develop coping mechanisms like stress reduction techniques, which you can practice using between sessions.

    Revisiting traumatic experiences can be emotional, so it’s perfectly alright if you need to pause.

    Phase 3: Assessment

    In this phase, you’ll visualize the traumatic event. Your therapist might ask you to write down all of your memories related to the trauma. Then, you’ll rate how uncomfortable each event made you feel, usually on a scale of 1 to 10. After that exercise, you’ll discuss any feelings, thoughts, or sensations it brought up. You may choose one memory to focus on in future sessions.

    Phases 4-6: Reprocessing

    This is the heart of EMDR, where you’ll learn to reprocess your trauma and become less sensitive to it. You’ll do this using what’s known as bilateral stimulation:

    • eye movements (following a light or your therapist’s finger with your eyes)
    • auditory tones
    • tactile taps (alternating tapping movements)

    Your therapist will use one of the above techniques while you focus on an image, thought, emotion, or sensation related to the trauma. At the end of each set, they’ll ask you to let your mind go blank, and to notice whatever comes to mind. During this stage, you might experience the following:

    • new insights or understanding about the trauma
    • a positive change in your emotional response
    • reframing negative thoughts to positive ones

    Throughout the session, your therapist might use techniques like these to bring you back to the present moment if you start to feel overwhelmed:

    • prompting you to focus on a positive belief
    • doing a body scan to check in with yourself physically

    Phase 7: Closure

    Before you leave a session, your therapist will guide you through relaxation techniques to help reinstate emotional stability. You can also use these in between sessions. Your therapist might ask you to keep a log to record any related thoughts, feelings, or sensations that arise the week after your session.

    Phase 8: Reevaluation

    Each session may start with a follow-up from the prior one. Your therapist can use this time to ask for feedback and evaluate your progress. This helps determine if you need to keep working on the same issues, or move on to new ones.

Which Conditions Does it Treat?

EMDR is often recommended for PTSD, ((Recommendations | Post-traumatic stress disorder | Guidance | NICE. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.nice.org.uk/guidance/ng116/chapter/recommendations []

  • World Health Organization. Guidelines for the management of conditions specifically related to stress. Geneva: WHO, 2013. []
  • Ptsd eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy | aboutface. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.ptsd.va.gov/apps/aboutFace/therapies/emdr.html []

  • Return to Resource Library

    Our Promise

    How Is Recovery.com Different?

    We believe everyone deserves access to accurate, unbiased information about mental health and addiction. That’s why we have a comprehensive set of treatment providers and don't charge for inclusion. Any center that meets our criteria can list for free. We do not and have never accepted fees for referring someone to a particular center. Providers who advertise with us must be verified by our Research Team and we clearly mark their status as advertisers.

    Our goal is to help you choose the best path for your recovery. That begins with information you can trust.