EMDR therapy explained

Jan 29, 2024

What is EMDR?

EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) is a form of psychotherapy that enables people to heal from the symptoms and emotional distress that are the result of disturbing experiences.  Repeated studies show that by using EMDR therapy people can experience the benefits of psychotherapy that once took years to make a difference. 

EMDR therapy shows that the mind can in fact heal from psychological trauma much as the body recovers from physical trauma.  When you cut your hand, your body works to close the wound.  If a foreign object or repeated injury irritates the wound, it festers and causes pain.  Once the block is removed, healing resumes.  EMDR therapy demonstrates that a similar sequence of events occurs with mental processes.  The brain’s information processing system naturally moves toward mental health.  If the system is blocked or imbalanced by the impact of a disturbing event, the emotional wound festers and can cause intense suffering.  Once the block is removed, healing resumes.  Using the detailed protocols and procedures learned in EMDR therapy training sessions, clinicians help clients activate their natural healing processes by slowing the over-stimulated emotional part of the brain down and synchronising the brain waves helping to then process the traumatic memory.

How does EMDR Work?

Eye movements (or other bilateral stimulation) are used once target memories are chosen, in cooperation between the therapist and the client. After the clinician has determined which memory to target first, they ask the client to hold different aspects of that event or thought in mind and to use their eyes to track the therapist’s hand or light machine, as it moves back and forth across the client’s field of vision (sometimes “buzzers” or earphones with alternating tones are used in place or in addition to eye movements) and as this happens (for reasons believed by a Harvard researcher to be connected with the biological mechanisms involved in Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep), internal associations arise within the client.  In successful EMDR therapy, the meaning of painful events is then transformed on an emotional level to be seen as much less disturbing and a stronger belief in positive core beliefs.  For instance, a sexual abuse victim shifts from feeling horror and self-disgust to holding the firm belief that, “I survived it and I am strong”.  Unlike talk therapy, the insights that clients gain in EMDR therapy result not so much from clinician interpretation, but from the client’s own improved intellectual and emotional processes that the brain experiences.  The result is that clients conclude EMDR therapy feeling empowered by the very experiences that once disturbed them.   


What is EMDR? Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a non-drug, non hypnosis psychotherapy procedure. The therapist guides the client in concentrating on a  troubling memory or emotion while moving the eyes rapidly back and forth (by following the  therapist’s fingers). This rapid eye movement, which occurs naturally during dreaming, seems to  speed the client’s movement through the healing process.  

What is it used for? EMDR is used to treat troubling symptoms such as anxiety, depression,  guilt, anger, and post-traumatic reactions. It can also be used to enhance emotional resources  such as confidence and self-esteem.  

What happens in a session? EMDR is different for everyone, because the healing process is  guided from within. Sometimes past issues or memories come up, which are related to the  current concern. Sometimes a painful memory brings up unpleasant emotions or body  sensations. This is normal and generally passes within a few minutes, as long as the EMDR is not stopped. The upsetting emotion or memory often seems to fade into the past and lose its  power.  

Why bring up a painful memory? When painful memories are avoided, they keep their disturbing power. However, a flashback or nightmare can feel as upsetting and overwhelming as the original experience, yet not be helpful. In therapy, and with EMDR, you can face the memory in a safe setting, so that you do not feel overwhelmed, you can get through it and move on.  

Will I be in control? It is hard to predict the thoughts, feelings, or memories that might come up during EMDR. It depends upon each individual’s natural healing process. You are always in charge of whether to continue or stop. You can also decide how much to tell the therapist about the experience.  

Are there any precautions? Yes. There are specific procedures to be followed depending on  your presenting problem, emotional stability, medical condition, and other factors. It is very important that the therapist be formally trained in EMDR. Otherwise, there is a risk that EMDR  would be incomplete, ineffective, or even harmful.  

What happens afterwards? You may continue to process the material for days or even weeks after the session, perhaps having new insights, vivid dreams, strong feelings, or memory recall.  This may feel confusing, but it is just a continuation of the healing process, and should simply be reported to the therapist at the next session. (However, if you become concerned or depressed, you should call your therapist immediately). As the distressing symptoms fade, you can work with the therapist on developing new skills and ways of coping. 

How can I get EMDR treatment? The EMDR International Association maintains a listing of EMDR-certified therapists who have met the highest standards of training and supervised experience. Other referral sources include EMDRIA-approved trainers and local mental health providers.