What is EMDR? A Guide to Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing As a Powerful Treatment for Trauma


Do you find yourself getting stuck repeatedly in negative thoughts or images triggered by traumatic memories?  Do you have a history of abuse from your childhood that still rears its ugly head?  Perhaps you’ve lived through a traumatic incident and you can’t seem to keep flashbacks from popping into your mind at the least convenient moments.  Or you’re just feeling a vague sense of anxiety or depression that you just can’t shake.

One of the newest and foremost treatments for trauma is Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, or EMDR.  The American Psychological Association named it as one of the primary treatments for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  It’s also been recognized by the World Health Organization and the Department of Defense in treatment of trauma. EMDR has effects on additional mental health issues such as anxiety, phobia, and depression.

What is EMDR?

EMDR involves connecting past traumatic events to a series of structured eye movements in a therapy session with a mental health therapist.  This pairing helps your brain reprocess traumatic memories and experiences.  Some memories associated with past trauma can get stuck or stay unprocessed because of high levels of emotion or distress at the time of the memory.  EMDR allows you to reprocess these memories in a way that allows relief.

As a result of EMDR, you may experience breakthroughs in thoughts or emotions that have felt stuck for a long time.  Studies have shown that those who experience post-traumatic stress disorder can experience significant change in as few as 3-6 sessions of EMDR.  Traumatic memories will become less distressing and disturbing as they are processed using this method.  You’ll feel a greater sense of empowerment as a result of the EMDR work you do.

Why does it work?

Our brains are funny things.  As much research as there is supporting the effectiveness of EMDR, there is no single mechanism in the brain that explains why it works.  It has been theorized that the eye movements, or bilateral stimulation, is similar to what happens in rapid-eye-movement (REM) sleep.  REM sleep has been shown to help process memories and experiences, which is why you often have dreams that reflect the events or experiences you had throughout your day.

Another theory is that, in typical psychotherapy, you use your verbal left-brain to discuss emotions and memories.  However, traumatic memories are stored in the nonverbal right-brain.  By stimulating both sides of your brain simultaneously through the eye movements, you’re connecting the parts of your brain where the memories are stored with the logical, rational side of your brain.

Some believe that simply the process of exposure to the traumatic memory in a therapeutic setting allows you to become desensitized to the memory.

Regardless, Francine Shapiro, the creator of this method of therapy, theorizes that EMDR helps access traumatic memory networks so that these memories can be processed and digested more easily.  That “digestion” leads to new connections and learning, reduced distress, and greater insight.

What should I expect when I do EMDR in sessions with my therapist?

First, your therapist will get to know your story and help you identify the issues you want to work on, just as is the case in any therapeutic relationship.  Once these issues are identified, you will connect them to past memories, present triggers, and future potential experiences where you’d like to respond differently.  You’ll become aware of physical sensations, thoughts, and emotions tied to those past memories.

After learning some stabilizing and self-soothing exercises, you’ll begin reprocessing those memories.  You’ll identify faulty belief systems associated with your memories that contribute to your current concern.  You’ll participate in sets of eye movements, allowing your thoughts, emotions, or sensations to come to mind as your brain processes the memory.  You’ll share brief explanations of what you are experiencing during each set.

You may use eye movements with your therapist’s hand or a light bar, but you also may prefer using auditory or tactile movements.  Your therapist may suggest tapping his or her hands on your knees or giving you handheld “pulsers” that alternate pressure, or you may be given headphones to hear a series of tones that alternate between your right and left ear.

After the session is over, your brain will likely continue to do some reprocessing, and you’ll be asked to keep a record of that reprocessing in order to facilitate further discussion of it in the next session.

Eventually, the memory will begin to cause less distress as you reinforce positive, adaptive beliefs about these experiences.  The traumatic images and corresponding emotions and sensations may change or even disappear over time.

If you’re interested in learning more about EMDR, The EMDR Institute and EMDRIA offer resources that introduce you to the research behind EMDR, and they can help you find an EMDR-Trained or EMDR-Certified clinician in your area.  You can also read such books as Getting Past Your Past* by Francine Shapiro or Tapping In* by Laurel Parnell to get a sense of how EMDR can work for you.


Are you plagued by memories of a traumatic event that you can’t seem to forget or move past?  Do you have a history of childhood abuse?  Have you tried treatment after treatment for your anxiety or depression, but all have come up short?  EMDR may be an effective tool to help you experience freedom from the flashbacks and relief from the unrelenting negative thoughts.  Give me a call at 734.656.8191 or email me today to hear more about how I use EMDR at Restored Hope.




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