How Does EMDR Therapy Work?


If you have experienced trauma in your life, it can be hard to move on from it entirely. You may be constantly reminded of the intense experience; maybe you are having flashbacks, nightmares, or are simply unable to enjoy life without the reminder of your traumatic past.

Traditional talk therapy and medications are effective treatment options for post-traumatic stress; however, other treatment options may be better suited to you.

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy (EMDR) is a relatively new form of psychotherapy that is primarily used to treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, panic, or trauma-based disorders.

EMDR incorporates elements from various treatment options and has aided in the relief of psychological trauma for individuals of all ages from around the world.

Although this integrative psychotherapy has been thoroughly researched and proven to be highly effective for treating trauma, many people still question this as a treatment option. This post will explore all things EMDR therapy, what it is, how it works, its effectiveness and what you can expect from an EMDR session.

What Is Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EDMR) Therapy?

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy was first developed by Dr. Francine Shaprio, in 1987, as an alternative treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Shapiro came from a behavioral background and started recognising eye movement’s effects on traumatic memories. She primarily focused on the treatment of sexual assault victims and war veterans, and by the 1990s, Shaprio had refined her findings, resulting in the recognition of EDMR as a promising and effective form of psychotherapy.

EMDR is a focused approach to treating symptoms of trauma and emotional distress due to the experience of traumatic events. It is based on the adaptive information processing model that believes that stress symptoms caused by trauma are due to memories not being correctly processed.

EMDR is based on the universal idea that we don’t tend to process traumatic events within the brain. Therefore, they continue to affect us long after the trauma has ended. This means that when we experience triggers, our bodies and brains react similarly to when the traumatic event occurred; we cannot draw a distinction between the past and the present.

Through EMDR therapy, an individual is challenged to ‘reprocess’ a disturbing memory in order to safely move past it. The therapy aims to change how traumatic memory is stored within the brain, so you can process it without experiencing the emotional and intense reactions that are a part of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

EMDR therapy uses bilateral stimulation while an individual is re-experiencing the specific trauma in a safe and comfortable environment in order to allow the brain’s natural ability to heal from traumatic stress. This is achieved by safely performing side-to-side eye movements whilst thinking of a traumatic memory, engaging both sides of the brain (bilateral stimulation).

In terms of mental illness, it is widely believed that it takes a long time to heal from severe emotional pain. However, extensive research and studies have proven that EMDR therapy can speed up the healing process from psychological trauma and proves that our minds can recover much like our bodies recover from physical trauma.

How Does It Work?

During EMDR therapy, an individual is called to focus on past negative memories and any negative beliefs they have of themselves that may be due to this. If these beliefs are connected to the previously disturbing events, then the EMDR treatment teaches clients to change the association. This, in turn, allows individuals to associate this memory with a positive belief in themselves instead.

For example, an assault victim may believe they ‘deserved’ whatever happened to them. EMDR would help change this self-destructive thinking into something positive such as ‘I am a worthwhile and good person who deserves great things.’ It all sounds good in theory, but you’re probably wondering how EMDR actually works.

EMDR treatment works by an individual identifying all the physical sensations and emotionally distressing symptoms that are associated with the negative memory. During the rapid eye movement part of the treatment, the individual focuses on these past memories as they engage in an external stimulus that creates rapid eye movements, also known as bilateral movement. The external stimuli is typically the therapist moving their fingers or, in some cases, tapping.

After these bilateral movements, the individual is asked how they feel. This process continues until the therapist and client believe the trauma has been effectively processed and the memories are no longer disturbing or traumatic.

It is believed that EMDR therapy works by processing the trauma with both sides of the brain stimulated. The bilateral movements and stimulation help a memory become unstuck within the brain and allow our natural neural networks to reconnect from one side of the brain to the other.

For example, the right side of the brain is thought to hold our negative emotions and perceptions surrounding our experiences. In contrast, the left side is associated with positive emotions. Traumatic memories can get stuck in the right side of the brain, and EMDR works by re-activating the neural networks and allowing individuals to create a peaceful resolution within themselves.

Another theory is that EMDR works as it creates a replica of our rapid eye movement (REM) sleep phase. Bilateral eye movements are thought to mimic REM sleep, where our memories are thought to process naturally and where we establish new memories.

how does emdr therapy work

What Can It Treat?

EMDR therapy is an effective form of treatment for people of all ages with a variety of mental health conditions. The therapy is most commonly used and known for treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In fact, The United States Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Defence list EMDR therapy as the ‘best practice’ for treating veterans experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder.

Nevertheless, a study conducted in 2017 found that EMDR therapy would be beneficial and effective for individuals who have a history of traumatic events or traumatic memories that they are trying to process, alongside certain mental health conditions such as:

  • Depression
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Psychosis
  • Substance abuse disorder
  • Anxiety disorders, e.g. acute stress disorder

EMDR for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

EMDR is one of the most highly recommended treatments for PTSD. It is endorsed by the World Health Organization, American Veterans Affairs Association, and the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies. It is particularly effective for PTSD as it specifically targets the memory centre within the brain, focusing on a distressing memory that causes triggers.

The key difference between EMDR and other forms of therapy is that it uses dual attention stimuli by creating bilateral movement from the client whilst talking about a specific memory, which helps desensitise the traumatic memories, minimising the PTSD symptoms, such as flashbacks.

What to Expect From EMDR

An EMDR treatment plan will typically last for around 6-12 sessions, with each session lasting for about one hour. Depending on individual differences, you may require more or fewer sessions. Research has found that having sessions twice a week for a period of six weeks can induce quick and effective results.

EMDR utilises eight phases of treatment where your EDMR therapist will guide you in discussing specific traumatic memories. Here is what to expect from an EMDR therapy treatment plan:

Phase 1: History Taking and Treatment Planning

Firstly you will establish a plan and goals specific to you. This may include discussing your mental health history as well as establishing your experiences with triggers and symptoms that you may be experiencing. Your therapist may also recommend other forms of treatment that you may benefit from alongside EMDR.

Phase 2: Preparation

Your EMDR therapist will talk you through the EMDR therapy process, explaining how the procedure works and will answer questions you may have. You will be shown a number of potential coping strategies, mindfulness exercises, or breathing exercises to provide you with methods to manage your emotions and symptoms during and between EMDR sessions.

Phase 3: Assessment

This is where your therapist will identify the original traumatic event that is causing you emotional distress. Imagery, memory, body sensations, and any associated negative beliefs will be assessed while the therapist introduces dual attention stimuli (DAS), such as eye movements, finger movements, or musical tones. All the above assessments will be used throughout the treatment to track your progress.

Phase 4-7: Desensitisation, Installation, Body Scan, Closure

The start of phase 4 marks the beginning of the desensitisation process. When your troubling memory has been identified, you will be encouraged to speak about this whilst participating in DAS to allow the mind to create new neural connections with the memory and the triggers.

You will be asked to speak about any feelings or reactions you may have experienced during the recall. When you are able to focus on the memory with no distress or trauma symptoms, you can now focus on a chosen positive belief whilst still doing the chosen movements.

The goal of EMDR therapy is to allow you to process your memories whilst equipping you with the understanding and perspectives that allow you to engage in healthy and beneficial behaviours and interactions in the future.

Phase 8: Re-evaluation

The final stage includes an overall assessment to ensure that you believe it has successfully reduced symptoms and that your memories have been adequately processed. You will assess whether you have an increased insight regarding your negative experiences and negative thoughts.

How Effective Is EMDR?

Since psychologist Francine Shapiro first developed the finalised version of the technique, over 20,000 mental health practitioners have been trained to use EMDR. Much research highlights its effectiveness in treating specific mental health conditions.

In 2019, researchers studied the results of seven randomised controlled trials that involved the use of EMDR. They found that early EMDR interventions reduced traumatic stress symptoms and prevented any symptoms from worsening.

2014 review of 24 studies found that EMDR therapy was effective for relieving emotional distress experienced after negative and traumatic experiences. It was also found that it is a much quicker and more effective treatment compared to other trauma-based therapies, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT).

Several studies have looked at the effectiveness of the treatment for PTSD. One study found that up to 90% of trauma victims no longer experienced symptoms of PTSD after receiving treatment for a short period of time. Another found that 77% of veterans no longer experienced PTSD symptoms after 12 sessions.

Treatment at The Wave

At The Wave, we offer trauma-focused mental health treatment for teenagers and young adults.

Our unique approach allows us to work with each client’s specific needs to allow for positive growth and a full recovery. We pride ourselves on ensuring that a safe space is provided to ensure each young person and the belief that all individuals have the capacity to heal from their past. We work alongside family members to ensure that care and support are provided for everybody and to show that change is always possible.

If you believe that you or a loved one cannot live a fulfilling life due to negative experiences and emotions, The Wave is here to help. Contact us today to discuss the treatment options available.

Fiona - The Wave Clinic

Fiona Yassin is the founder and clinical director at The Wave Clinic. She is a U.K. and International registered Psychotherapist and Accredited Clinical Supervisor (U.K. and UNCG).

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