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March 15, 2022

Breaking Down EMDR Therapy: Understanding How it Works.

What is EMDR therapy?

There are various treatment options for different concerns, and one that is growing in popularity is Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy, or EMDR therapy (a). EMDR therapy is most commonly used for symptoms of PTSD and unprocessed trauma, but this form of therapy is effective in the treatment of anxiety (b), depression (c), addiction (d), and eating disorders (e), to name a few.


People who have experienced trauma at some point in their lives have been unable to fully process their trauma, which causes a cycle of symptoms (f) to repeat the trauma in their brain. EMDR Therapy targets the trapped-unprocessed memories and uses eye movement, similar to the REM sleeping phase (g). 


Simply put, EMDR is a memory-based type of psychotherapy, or talk therapy, that focuses on the client moving their eyes in a rhythmic pattern to promote images and other sensory details as they think about the traumatic event.

How does EMDR works?

This rhythmic movement is called bilateral stimulation (h), when the eyes move side to side while following a moving point of focus, such as a light or the therapist’s finger. Bilateral movement like this promotes the reprocessing of trauma, which allows clients to “update” the information their brain has stored as trauma and reprocess what happened. 

Will I experience discomfort during EMDR therapy?


Since EMDR is designed to reprocess trauma experiences, there will be a side effect of a manageable increase in emotional distress during the session. After all, the reason you are seeing an EMDR therapist is to target traumatic experiences. But once the therapy sessions are completed, these emotional responses and symptoms will reduce significantly and likely never resurface again.

What to expect in an EMDR session

n the initial sessions, your therapist will work on creating a safe and welcoming environment. In addition, these sessions will involve gathering information to help your therapist create collaborative EMDR goals. This step consists in recalling an “image” or “snapshot” of the memory related to your trauma experience. Identifying a snapshot or image becomes the target memory where an EMDR session begins. 

How is the bilateral stimulation performed?

Since your therapist identified the target image or snapshot, you will be asked to bring up the target image or snapshot; then, while thinking about that image, you will be asked to quickly move your eyes back and forth for a short period of time, between 15 and 20 seconds. Then you will be asked to report whatever comes to mind, whether images, sounds, smells, or other forms of sensory information that come to mind.

The stage of EMDR Therapy

The process of EMDR therapy splits into eight stages, including history, preparation, assessment, desensitization, installation, body scan, closure, and debriefing. (i). The time it takes to go through these steps varies case-to-case basis. At the end of each session, you and your therapist will re-evaluate the effects and process the new information revealed.


The goal of EMDR therapy is for clients to experience rapid change, which means that the time necessary to complete this type of therapy depends on the depth and complexity of the trauma. Therefore, the more complex the traumatic experience is, the longer you will likely need to return for EMDR sessions. 


It is important to know that because EMDR is a rapid-change therapy, EMDR is often paired with other forms of treatment and support, as reprocessing trauma can be complex. For example, your therapist may perform EMDR one session followed by processing/debriefing the EMDR session next week. 


If you have experienced trauma or are experiencing symptoms of other mental health issues, you might benefit from EMDR therapy. Talking with a certified EMDR therapist is the first step to determining if EMDR therapy is for you. 


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