What is EMDR Therapy? How Does It Work?

min read
LCSW, Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Therapist

Alex is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker. She earned a Master of Social Work degree from the USC with a concentration in Children and Families and a sub-concentration in Military Social Work.

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy represents a significant advancement in psychotherapy, particularly in treating Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and other trauma-related disorders. Developed by Dr. Francine Shapiro in the late 1980s, EMDR therapy integrates elements of several therapeutic approaches with eye movements or other forms of bilateral stimulation to process and desensitize distressing memories, facilitating healing.

An Excellent Video from The School of Life Briefly Explaining EMDR Therapy

Understanding EMDR Therapy

Historical Background and Development

Historical Background and Development: The development of EMDR therapy can be traced back to a serendipitous discovery by Shapiro. While pondering her own distressing thoughts during a walk, she noticed that eye movements seemed to diminish the emotional intensity of those thoughts. This observation led to the foundational concept of EMDR therapy: that bilateral sensory activity could facilitate the processing of traumatic memories, thereby reducing their psychological impact​ (Wikipedia)​.

The Core Principle

At the heart of EMDR is the Adaptive Information Processing model, which posits that psychological stress stems from unprocessed memories. EMDR aims to facilitate the processing of these memories, thereby alleviating distress. 

Which Conditions Can EMDR Therapy Address?

EMDR therapy is utilized for managing:

  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
  • Anxiety disorders, including panic attacks and phobias
  • Depression and mood disorders
  • Stress-induced problems, including acute stress disorder
  • Memories causing emotional distress
  • Grief and loss
  • Self-esteem issues
  • Chronic pain
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Addiction and substance abuse
  • Eating disorders
  • Performance anxiety, such as stage fright or test anxiety

The Science Behind EMDR

How EMDR Works

EMDR therapy involves the patient recalling a traumatic memory while simultaneously engaging in bilateral stimulation, such as side-to-side eye movements. This process is thought to reduce the vividness and emotional charge associated with the memory, thereby diminishing its distressing impact​ (Wikipedia)​.

EMDR's Impact on the Brain: 

Theories suggest that EMDR may facilitate the processing of traumatic memories, enabling them to be integrated into the brain's existing memory networks in a less distressing manner. This process is believed to involve the amygdala (responsible for emotion processing), the hippocampus (involved in memory consolidation), and the prefrontal cortex (associated with controlling attention and thought)​ (EMDR International Association)​.

The 8 Phase Approach of EMDR Therapy

EMDR therapy is characterized by a structured eight-phase approach that meticulously guides individuals through the process of identifying, processing, and coming to terms with traumatic memories:

  1. History Taking and Treatment Planning: This initial phase involves understanding the individual's background and identifying specific memories for targeted treatment.
  2. Preparation: The therapist prepares the individual for the treatment process, establishing trust and explaining the theory and methods of EMDR.
  3. Assessment: Together, the therapist and the individual identify a target memory and the associated negative beliefs and emotions.
  4. Desensitization: Utilizing bilateral stimulation, the therapist aids the individual in processing the targeted memory, aiming to reduce its emotional impact.
  5. Installation: The focus shifts to reinforcing positive beliefs related to the targeted memory.
  6. Body Scan: The individual is asked to note any residual bodily sensations associated with the memory and process these as needed.
  7. Closure: Ensures the individual leaves the session feeling better than at the beginning, employing techniques to return to emotional equilibrium.
  8. Reevaluation: At the start of subsequent sessions, progress is reviewed, and the next steps are planned.

Scientific Research Supporting EMDR Therapy

A meta-analysis reported by the EMDR Institute indicates that both EMDR and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) have been frequently studied and shown to be effective in treating PTSD. This research encompasses various studies, including one where EMDR was found to be effective in reducing symptoms related to the traumatic experience of earthquakes, and another that demonstrated its efficacy in treating children with PTSD from diverse trauma sources. These studies collectively highlight EMDR's potential in reducing symptoms of PTSD, with maintained improvements over time (Source: EMDR Institute).

The PTSD: National Center for PTSD further elaborates on EMDR's theoretical foundation—the Adaptive Information Processing (AIP) model. This model suggests that PTSD symptoms arise from unprocessed traumatic memories. EMDR aims to access and reprocess these memories, facilitating their integration into the patient's memory network, which can lead to symptom reduction. Clinical practice guidelines have recognized EMDR for its effectiveness in treating PTSD, supported by numerous randomized controlled trials and meta-analyses. These studies suggest that EMDR can produce moderate to strong treatment effects in reducing PTSD symptoms, depression, and achieving loss of PTSD diagnosis. Remarkably, EMDR has shown greater symptom reduction compared to medication in some studies, indicating its significance as a potent treatment modality (Source: PTSD: National Center for PTSD).

Finding an EMDR Therapist

Our team offers expert EMDR therapy and is ready to guide you through the healing process. For those interested in exploring this transformative therapy, we provide free consultations to discuss how EMDR can benefit you. Discover more about our EMDR therapy services.

Contact Us