What Is EMDR Therapy? All You Need To Know

What is EMDR Therapy

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a therapeutic alternative targeted at patients who develop symptoms from traumatic events. Since its development in the 1980s by Francine Shapiro, EMDR has helped people alleviate distressful and painful memories. Clinicians have used the therapy for decades but have become an increasingly popular and sought-after treatment to deal with traumatic experiences.

EMDR is a successful form of therapy in which stimulation, commonly through eye movements, helps individuals cope with traumatic memories and emotions. The memories and emotions of the past also affect present experiences. Throughout multiple therapy sessions, a licensed therapist guides the client through a total of eight phases.

As EMDR slowly gains more popularity and recognition in successful therapeutic interventions, there are many benefits of the therapeutic methods that may be surprising for potential therapy clients. Utilizing EMDR therapy is based on the idea that negative thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are the result of unprocessed memories.

What Makes EDMR Unique?

EMDR uses rapid sets of eye movements to help update disturbing experiences, like what occurs when asleep. During sleep, individuals alternate between regular sleep and REM (rapid eye movement). This sleep pattern helps process troubling things.

EMDR replicates REM sleep patterns by alternating between sets of eye movements and brief reports about what therapy patients are noticing. The alternating process helps update memories to healthier present perspectives. EMDR therapy does not require long, drawn-out sessions of divulging personal or traumatic life experiences. Other therapy interventions also have individuals work on homework which is not necessary with EMDR.

Natural responses to stress are part of the instinctual fight or flight response system. When distress from a disturbing event remains, the upsetting images, thoughts, and emotions may create an overwhelming feeling of being stuck in time or fixated at the moment. Nowadays, the “freeze” response has been added to the instinctual responses (fight, flight, or freeze).

How Many Sessions Does It Take?

By accessing and processing traumatic memories, patients can feel better much more quickly. Rather than focusing on changing emotions, thoughts, or behaviors resulting from painful memory, EMDR helps the brain resume its natural healing process in fewer sessions than other therapies. Licensed and trained therapists can utilize EMDR to facilitate treatment interventions in only a few sessions.

The number of sessions depends upon the specific problem and client history. However, repeated controlled studies have shown that a single trauma can be processed within three sessions in 80-90% of the participants. While every disturbing event need not be processed, the amount of therapy will depend upon the complexity of the history.

In a controlled study, 80% of multiple civilian trauma victims no longer had PTSD after 6 hours of treatment. A study of combat veterans reported that after 12 sessions 77% no longer had post-traumatic stress disorder.

The EMDR Therapeutic Process

With the brain having a natural way to recover from traumatic memories and events, EMDR therapy helps stimulate the healing process by connecting traumatic memories with added information. After successful treatment with EMDR, distress is relieved, negative feelings are reshaped, emotional symptoms are reduced, and a peaceful resolution is achieved.

Incidence of trauma and PTSD is increasingly common. Aside from adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), adult traumas are also on the rise. According to U.S. Veterans Affairs, 7 or 8 out of every one hundred people (or 7-8% of the population) will have PTSD at some point in their lives. This means that about 8 million U.S. adults have PTSD during a given year. This is only a small portion of those who have gone through a trauma

During EMDR sessions, patients relive triggering experiences in brief doses while their eye movements are directed by their therapist. The therapist moves their fingers back and forth in front of the patient’s face and asks them to follow their hand motions with their eyes. At the same time, the therapist leads the patient through the recall of traumatic experiences or emotions they have experienced.

The patient focuses on a specific memory and identifies the belief connected to the negative memory. The individual then formulates a positive belief to replace the negative one. A therapist asks a set of questions to access and activate negative experiences and the desired resolution.

Sets of rapid eye movement are attempted with free association and allow the brain to work through the experience. Eye movements are alternated with patient reports about what is being experienced. EMDR processing continues until the experience has been updated to a positive perspective.

EMDR Effectiveness and Benefits

EMDR is effective because recalling distressing events is often less emotionally upsetting when the patient’s attention is diverted. Other therapies like exposure therapy, are prone to cause more distressing feelings over a longer period. Ultimately, EMDR therapy results in insight regarding both disturbing and long-held negative thoughts that have grown out of a traumatic event.

Creating a different vantage point or a new lens to see past events can be just as life-altering as traumatic events. This different view provides individuals control over the current life adaptations the trauma has created. Understanding how trauma has a daily effect on life can help reduce symptoms related to PTSD. Hallucinations, delusions, anxiety, and depression symptoms have been shown to significantly improve after EMDR treatment sessions.


With trauma experiences, EMDR as an intervention method has a history of helping people with post-traumatic stress disorder and has now expanded to effectively treat other diagnoses. EMDR helps build connections between the physical and the psychological, improving cognition and mind-body connections. As traumatic events are broken down with a licensed therapist, individuals can take a step back and see another view of events and reshape what occurred in the past.

EMDR therapy has been found to be more effective than longer-term exposure therapy in treating symptoms and had a lower rate of quitting therapy during the therapeutic process. EMDR is an effective therapy that can promote psychological healing for those who have experienced trauma and other mental health concerns.