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What Is EMDR Therapy and How Does It Work?

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Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy (EMDR Therapy) is an evidence-based approach to treating trauma and PTSD. Read on to learn answers to the questions “What is EMDR therapy and how does it work?”

Developed by psychologist and educator Francine Shapiro, EMDR therapy has grown steadily in popularity since Shapiro began using it in 1987. EMDR is designed to heal the emotional distress resulting from traumatic memories. In addition, it is effective in treating co-occurring disorders resulting from trauma. Therefore, this approach has helped millions of people find relief from trauma-related mental health issues.

Developed by psychologist and educator Francine Shapiro, EMDR therapy has grown steadily in popularity since Shapiro began using it in 1987.

What is EMDR?

Some researchers believe that EMDR works by engaging similar brain mechanisms as those that are involved in rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. The repeated redirection of attention caused by the eye movements used in EMDR therapy creates a neurobiological state that resembles REM sleep. Therefore, traumatic and emotionally charged memories can be processed so they are no longer as overwhelming.

In EMDR therapy, the client focuses on the troubling image or negative thought while simultaneously moving their eyes back and forth. To prompt this eye moment, EMDR practitioners might move their fingers from side to side, tap their hand from side to side, or wave a wand. The client moves their eyes back and forth to follow the prompt.

During this processing, the client notices whatever thoughts, feelings, images, memories, or sensations might arise. The eye movements prompt the brain to make associations and neural connections that help integrate the disturbing memories. Eventually, the distress associated with the memory dissolves.

How Does EMDR Work?

What is EMDR therapy and how does it work? An EMDR therapy session involves an eight-phase treatment process. However, the number of sessions needed varies according to the client’s needs and history. The age of PTSD onset and the number of times the person experienced traumatic events or incidents determine how long they will need to be in EMDR treatment.

According to some experts, clients with a single incident of trauma, such as a one-time assault or accident, may need only five hours to integrate the event. By contrast, people who have experienced childhood trauma or multiple incidents of trauma may require a longer treatment time. In general, several sessions are necessary to treat PTSD using EMDR trauma therapy.

The Phases of EMDR Therapy

An EMDR session includes the following eight phases.

  1. History Taking and Treatment Planning
    The EMDR therapist works with the client to develop a treatment plan. Together, the client and therapist identify distressing memories and current situations that could benefit from EMDR processing.
  2. Preparation
    Next, the clinician explains how EMDR works. Moreover, the EMDR therapist may teach the client a variety of imagery and stress-reduction techniques to use during and between sessions. Therefore, the client has a greater chance of emotional stability throughout.
  3. Assessment
    Subsequently, the practitioner and the client use EMDR therapy techniques to process traumatic incidents or memories. Moreover, they identify positive replacements for these negative memories.
  4. Desensitization
    This phase focuses on desensitization. This includes the eye movement technique described above. This process continues until the client reports that the memory is no longer distressing.
  5. Installation
    In this phase, the client focuses on positive emotions and beliefs to replace those created by the trauma.
  6. Body Scan
    The client performs a body scan to assess sensations and tension to determine whether the trauma has been processed.
  7. Closure
    The EMDR therapist assists the client in using a variety of self-calming techniques. The therapist may ask the client to keep a log as a reminder of their coping strategies and self-calming activities.
  8. Reevaluation
    The client and practitioner examine the progress made and determine which targets to address next.
Two images, one of a therapist taking notes on a pad, and another close-up view of an eye.
Two images, one of a therapist taking notes on a pad, and another close-up view of an eye.

What to Expect After EMDR

Following EMDR treatment, the majority of patients experience a reduction of traumatic memories and relief from the distress associated with these memories and triggers. Along with treating trauma and PTSD, EMDR therapy has been shown to be effective over time in reducing symptoms of the following conditions, among others:

  • Panic attacks
  • Eating disorders
  • Depression
  • Addictions
  • Phobias
  • Stress caused by chronic disease
  • Schizophrenia
  • Anxiety

Moreover, the following populations have successfully used EMDR to heal from trauma:

  • People who have been a victim of a disaster
  • Clients who experience discomfort with social situations
  • Those dealing with grief and loss
  • Police officers and other frontline providers
  • Children and young people who have experienced sexual abuse.

EMDR therapy has few side effects, particularly in contrast to the side effects of psychiatric medication. However, some people report experiencing especially vivid and realistic dreams following EMDR treatment.

EMDR Research

EMDR therapy is scientifically validated and recognized as an effective form of treatment for trauma and other conditions. Organizations that endorse the use of EMDR include the American Psychiatric Association, the World Health Organization, the Department of Veterans Affairs, and the Department of Defense, among others.

Here is a sampling of EMDR research done on treatment outcomes for a variety of populations.

  • According to the EMDR Institute, Inc., EMDR research conducted at a Veterans Affairs facility reported a 77 percent remission in PTSD after 12 treatment sessions.
  • Another study , funded by Kaiser Permanente, found that 100 percent of single-trauma victims and 77 percent of multiple-trauma victims participating were no longer diagnosable with PTSD, after only six 50-minute sessions.
  • A 2017 study found that EMDR was effective not only for trauma but also for associated disorders, including depression, anxiety, and substance use.
  • A meta-analysis of 26 randomized controlled trials confirmed that EMDR therapy significantly reduces the symptoms of PTSD, depression, anxiety, and distress. 
  • An early EMDR research study of civilians reported a 90 percent PTSD remission in sexual assault victims after just four weekly sessions.
  • Controlled studies of EMDR have also shown benefits for children with self-esteem and behavioral problems. In one study, PTSD symptoms in children decreased to 25 percent in the EMDR group. But it remained at 100 percent among children who were wait-listed for the treatment.

Hopefully this has answered the question of “What is EMDR therapy and how does it work?” Overall, the evidence shows that EMDR is a powerful tool. Therefore, this approach is an effective modality in supporting young adult mental health. Contact our Admissions experts anytime to find out more about treatments for trauma, depression, and anxiety, tailored specifically for young adults.


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Treatment / May 26, 2020

Newport Institute

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