What Is EMDR Therapy and How Does It Work?

Reviewed on 3/12/2021
Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) is psychotherapy
Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) is psychotherapy

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) is psychotherapy originally intended to treat people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Some of the events that may result in PTSD include:

  • Rape
  • Abuse
  • Military combat
  • Physical assault
  • Car accidents

Your brain may not be able to process these traumas. Sometimes, your mind may even freeze the moment in time and replay it subconsciously when certain images, sounds, smells, dates, or seasons trigger it. As a result of the trauma, your perception of the world changes completely. Moreover, it can have a severe impact on your personality. This is often called PTSD.

EMDR works on the concept that the natural tendency of the brain is to heal itself from the traumatic memory. There are however mental blocks (such as self-disgust, feeling of powerlessness, and self-esteem issues) that block the healing process. During EMDR, you are allowed to process the bad memories and heal yourself. It helps the brain to process your thoughts and feelings in a healthier way. You may have a vivid memory of the incident, but you will certainly not delve into it. The resultant feelings may not be as intense as it was before the therapy. EMDR is an individual therapy typically delivered one to two times per week for a total of 6-12 sessions, although some people benefit from fewer sessions.

During an EMDR:

  • Your therapist will move their fingers back and forth in front of your face and ask you to follow these motions.
  • Simultaneously, they will make you recall the distressing event along with the emotions and body gestures that go along with it.
  • Next, they will channel your thoughts to more pleasant ones.
  • Some therapists may use hand or toe tapping or musical tones as alternatives to hand motions.
  • The therapist will repeat this process until the event feels less disabling.
  • The blending of focus on the memory and eye movements or sounds lets your brain handle the memory safely. It also alters the way your brain stores memory.

What are the different phases of EMDR?

There are eight phases of eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR):

  1. History and treatment planning: You will describe the trauma and associated feelings with the therapist. The therapist will work in co-ordination with you to develop a treatment plan.
  2. Preparation: The therapist will give information about EMDR therapy, its benefits, and the procedure. They will also help you practice eye movements. It is the time when you can get comfortable with your therapist.
  3. Assessment: In this phase, the therapist goes deeper into the target of your therapy and negative beliefs associated with the memory. The therapist may teach you various imagery and stress reduction techniques that you can use during and between sessions. This is to handle the emotional distress.
  4. Desensitization: During this phase, you will focus on your memory. Simultaneously, you will engage in eye movements. As you progress, new thoughts may emerge.
  5. Installation: Here, you need to channel your negative belief to a positive one. For example, “I am a disgusting thing” to “I survived it, and I am strong.”
  6. Body scan: In this phase, you need to focus on your trauma and check if you feel the same as you did before EMDR.
  7. Closure: It is used to close the session. Here, you’ll learn what to expect from one session to the next and techniques to deal with feelings or new memories that emerge.
  8. Reevaluation: The next session starts with this phase. The therapist evaluates the following things:
  • Your current psychological state
  • Effects of treatment are still maintained
  • Any new memories emerged since the last session

The therapist also formulates targets for the current session.

What are the uses of EMDR?

Apart from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) has been used to cure


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