What is EMDR therapy, and how does it work

If you’ve ever experienced traumatic stress, you’ll likely be aware of its effects on the body and mind.

Traumatic events can disrupt our inner worlds, adversely changing how we perceive ourselves and the people around us.

Traumatic memories

After a traumatic event, a world that used to feel safe may begin to feel scary and threatening, evoking profound feelings of anxiety despite no presence of a threat.

You may find that you are easily triggered and often experience profound emotional distress through specific sights, sounds, people, and places.

Traumatic memory triggers

Sometimes there might not be a trigger that sets off your traumatic memories, which can induce the most distress since such symptoms often make no sense.

How traumatic experiences can make us feel

After a traumatic event, people experiencing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder often feel profoundly isolated from those around them.

Such individuals may ask themselves the following questions as they begin to withdraw from family and friends:

What are these terrible nightmares? Why does it feel as though I’m randomly reliving my disturbing past in my mind?

Does this happen to anyone else, or is there something wrong with me?

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Mental health implications

The latter question often invokes the most anxiety for trauma survivors as those experiencing trauma symptoms believe they are losing their minds.

Fortunately, with modern advancements in mental health treatment, trauma survivors can access helpful information and insights about their symptoms.

Moreover, individuals with trauma symptoms can use effective treatment programs specifically to treat trauma symptoms, such as EMDR therapy.

What is EMDR therapy, and how does it work?

EMDR, which stands for eye movement desensitization reprocessing, is interactive psychotherapy used to treat emotional and psychological distress.

EMDR therapy is based on the principle that disturbing and traumatic memories can cause post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms when you don’t process them effectively.

Re-experiencing traumatic events

Thus, whenever you encounter specific sounds, sights, smells, places, or people, your unprocessed memories get triggered by these external factors, and you repeatedly re-experience them psychologically.

The process of ”reliving events” causes emotional and psychological distress and other symptoms identified as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

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How does EMDR help with trauma symptoms?

Essentially, EMDR seeks to change how your traumatic memories get stored in your brain.

If such memories remain incorrectly stored, you are likely to continue experiencing trauma symptoms.

During therapy, an EMDR therapist guides you through bilateral eye movements (side-to-side eye movements) as you recall a traumatic event in small portions or segments.

You will repeat the above process until your traumatic memories no longer cause you distress.

EMDR effectiveness for other conditions

Although EMDR was initially developed to treat PTSD and trauma, studies have shown its effectiveness for other mental health conditions associated with past trauma.

What makes EMDR effective compared to other treatments?

In recent decades, questions have arisen about side-to-side eye movements and how this process can alleviate traumatic symptoms and ease painful memories alone.

Mental health experts aren’t sure why EMDR works so well for trauma patients.

Although many believe that the process of bilateral movements while recalling distressing events may feel less emotionally upsetting since the person isn’t giving such memories their full attention.

Broadly, the process of bilateral stimulation used in eye movement desensitization reprocessing therapy gives the patient something to focus on as they access unwanted thoughts and traumatic memories.

According to experts, bilateral movements help minimise the intensity of painful memories, allowing the person space to process them without an overwhelming emotional response.

EMDR literature

Some literature has illustrated the effectiveness of EMDR on trauma patients in recent years.

For example, a 2014 review of 24 studies explained the benefits of EMDR, saying that:

  • EMDR may alleviate somatic symptoms, such as muscle tension or pain in the body
  • EMDR may work quicker and more effectively than other trauma treatments such as trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy
  • EMDR can help alleviate psychological distress after traumatic or adverse experiences

Other reviews

Other studies looked at EMDR’s effectiveness and found that:

  • EMDR improved PTSD symptoms and proved more effective than some traditional trauma therapies. Such research was conducted using eight current studies in a 2018 review. However, much of the evidence in the study relies on small sample sizes.
  • EMDR may be effective for treating children with PTSD. In a 2018 review, researchers found that all the children in the sample showed a reduction in PTSD symptoms – and other trauma-related signs.
  • EMDR might be a promising treatment option for those suffering from trauma-related symptoms in affective, psychotic, and chronic pain conditions, as suggested by a 2017 review.
  • EMDR could be a potential treatment option for people suffering from depression – although more research into this area is needed.

The eight phases of EMDR

Typically, EMDR sessions take place once or twice a week, with six to twelve sessions.

Depending on various factors, you may require more or fewer sessions.
Broadly, the following process is what you can expect during your EMDR treatment:

Phase one: Treatment planning and history taking

In phase one, your therapist will assess and review your symptoms and health history to get a clearer insight into where you are with your symptoms and the treatment process.

The above may involve discussing your trauma and identifying specific memories that you would like to address.

Phase two: Preparation

During phase two, your therapist will explain the therapeutic process to you in-depth, i.e., how EMDR therapy works. They will also answer any questions or concerns.

Since EMDR can take multiple sessions before a person experiences any progress, your therapist will help you develop coping mechanisms to help you deal with your trauma symptoms.

For example, the above may include stress reduction techniques such as deep breathing and resourcing techniques.

Phase three: Assessing targeted memories

The aim of phase 3 is to identify and assess a specific memory that might be causing your disturbance or emotional distress.

Every aspect of the traumatic memory, i.e., cognition, imagery, affect, and physical sensations, is assessed and reviewed on a diagnostic scale.

Your therapist will use the above scales to track your progress throughout your treatment.

Phases four to seven: Treatment

In phase four, your EMDR treatment starts – which marks the beginning of the desensitisation process.

During the session, your therapist will ask you to recall certain aspects of traumatic memory while guiding you through specific eye movements.

Once you have completed the memory recall and any associated feelings, your therapist may ask you about the thoughts, beliefs, and body sensations you experienced during this time.

The objective is to ”install” more positive belief systems and emotional responses related to a traumatic event and note any reactions, helping your therapist track your progress for future sessions.


Trust is an imperative aspect of EMDR therapy.

For instance, if you experience distress during sessions, trusting that your therapist can help bring you back to the present and help you work through your feelings is critical.

Once the session is over, your therapist will assess whether your targeted memory got fully reprocessed based on your responses.

Suppose your therapist finds that the memory is still incomplete.

In that case, they may conduct further exercises like stress reduction or resourcing techniques to ensure you feel calm and regulated before leaving the session.

Phase eight: Re-evaluation

During phase eight (which occurs in the following session), your therapist will ask you questions about the memories and feelings addressed during the last session.

If such memories still cause you distress, your therapist may continue targeting them; if not, they will likely move on to new memories or targets.

What mental health conditions does EMDR effectively treat?

There is evidence to suggest that EMDR is effective for various physical and mental health disorders, including:

  • Psychosis
  • Depression
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Substance use disorders
  • Low back pain
  • Anxiety

EMDR therapy advantages

Mental distress can severely limit our inner world.

However, traumatic experiences can do more than induce symptoms like flashbacks, nightmares, anxiety, intrusive thoughts, guilt, or sadness about the event.

Trauma can profoundly affect how we function and navigate our environments and may impair how we perceive ourselves and those around us.

Freeze cycle

Upsetting events can leave us feeling ”stuck” or frozen in time; such experiences can make us feel trapped where avoidance appears to be the only viable solution to cope with the pain.

Inherently, trauma alters the brain’s responses to certain stimuli.

People, places, sights, and sounds that do not pose an immediate threat continue to produce trauma responses long after traumatic events subside.

All this is the brain’s way of protecting itself against harm.

However, such responses are often inaccurate since the brain cannot discern between an actual threat from a harmless one.

EMDR therapy can help break the freeze cycle by giving your brain the space to process challenging memories safely and less painfully.

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