Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR): Another Type of Psychotherapy

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Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states ...Read More

EMDR is known to be effective at treating PTSD, and it can have positive effects on depression, anxiety, addiction, and other trauma-related issues. 

Table of Contents:

  • Quick Answer: What Is EMDR?
  • Introduction to EMDR
  • How Does EMDR Work?
  • What Conditions Does EMDR Treat?
  • How to Find an EMDR Therapist
  • Pre- and Post-Session Tips
  • Risks and Side Effects
  • EMDR vs. Other Trauma-Focused Therapies
  • FAQs about EMDR

Key facts:

  • EMDR is endorsed by the APA, WHO, VA, and NICE
  • Hundreds of studies demonstrate EMDR’s effectiveness, especially in treating single-event trauma 
  • EMDR is one of the fastest-acting treatment options and doesn’t have any side effects 

What Is EMDR, and What Are Its Immediate Benefits?

EMDR is a therapy method in which a practitioner uses eye movements to help you process traumatic memories, easing the emotional pain that comes with them. Immediate benefits include relief of anxiety, depression, stress, and other trauma symptoms.  


Introduction to EMDR

Eye movement desensitization and processing (EMDR) is an evidence-based therapy that can help you process emotions tied to traumatic memories. According to Dr. Allan Schwartz, “When a patient talks briefly about a traumatic event and the eye movements are modified, these events are changed from episodic memory into semantic memory.” In other words, the memory stops feeling like it’s happening now and returns to the past where it belongs.  

EMDR has the strongest available recommendation as an effective treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and is endorsed by the WHO, APA, and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.  Based on research studies, EMDR may help manage mental health conditions such as PTSD, major depressive disorder, and substance use disorders [1][2][3][4].

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How EMDR Works: A Step-By-Step Guide

EMDR is an eight-step process, though it can take more than one session to progress through a phase[5]. Here’s what you can expect at each stage:

  1. History talking: Your therapist gets to know you and your reasons for seeking therapy to develop a targeted plan. 
  2. Getting you prepared: You learn the details of how EMDR works, and the therapist offers advice about how to cope with any challenging emotions that arrive during sessions.   
  3. Memory assessment: Together with the therapist, you pinpoint traumatic memories, emotions, beliefs, and physical feelings relating to distressing experiences. In addition to discussing the experiences, you set an intention for your desired emotional state.
  4. Desensitization: Dr. Schwartz explains, “In an EMDR session, a patient remembers a trauma. The therapist then moves [their] fingers back and forth in front of the patient’s face. The finger movements influence how the eyes move when the disturbing [event] is remembered.”
  5. Installation: Next, you reinforce positive beliefs using the same process as desensitization. 
  6. Body scan: During this stage, the therapist asks you to self-report physical sensations that arise during body scans. They continue with the stimulation protocols until you no longer experience these sensations. 
  7. Closure: It’s important to close the session and come back to the present moment so you feel safe and ready to get on with the rest of your day.
  8. Evaluation: Your therapist assesses how far along the treatment of a target memory is at the beginning of each session. If you report a significant reduction in negative emotions, they may deem you ready to move to the next target memory.

Finger movements work by engaging both sides of the brain as you process a traumatic memory in a process called bilateral stimulation [1]. This helps you access and reprocess the event naturally, shifting it from an episodic memory into a semantic memory [6].

Conditions Treated With EMDR

A 2021 meta analysis concluded that EMDR can have positive effects for people with the following mental health conditions [7]:

  • PTSD
  • Major depressive disorder
  • Anxiety
  • Psychosis
  • Substance use disorders
  • Somatoform disorders
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Eating disorders
  • Personality disorders in adults
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder
  • Pain
  • Neurodegenerative disorders
  • Mood disorders
  • Sleep disorders 
  • Adolescent mental illness [8]

Finding a Qualified EMDR Therapist

Dr. Schwartz says, “An EMDR therapist must be a licensed psychologist, social worker or psychiatrist who then has the specific training for this procedure.” That means they should hold a valid state license and be certified by the EMDR International Association (EMDRIA) [9].

Tips for the EMDR Session Experience

Let’s explore some tips to help you prepare for sessions and practice self-care afterward:

  • Be aware that you might experience heightened emotions and have vivid recollections during your session.
  • Expect some discomfort or emotional distress before feelings of relief and calm kick in.
  • Get ready for the relief you’ll feel once those challenging emotions are processed.
  • Allocate post-session relaxation time, and avoid exerting yourself for the rest of the day.
  • Consider journaling about your experiences immediately after the session to track changes.
  • Practice mindfulness or meditation or have a cozy chat with a good friend if you feel overwhelmed [10]. 

Risks and Side Effects

One of the main reasons EMDR can appeal to many people is that it’s generally considered a safe therapy. This can make it especially attractive to people with substance use disorders or intolerance to medication.

EMDR vs. Other Therapies

When it comes to single-event trauma, some research studies found that EMDR is rated as having the best outcomes — even compared to CBT [12][13]. Instead of being a long-term talking-first therapy like CBT or psychodynamic therapy, it’s short-term, and the talking element is significantly briefer.  

Other therapies tailored for trauma treatment include:

  • Prolonged exposure therapy
  • Cognitive processing therapy
  • Trauma systems therapy
  • Accelerated resolution therapy
  • Hypnotherapy
  • Somatic therapies
  • Art and music therapy
  • Psychodynamic therapy
  • Inner child work
  • Narrative therapy
  • Internal family systems therapy

Supporting Your EMDR Journey: FAQs About EMDR 

Can I do EMDR alone?

Dr. Schwartz says, “Therapists undergo a specific type of training for EMDR and must be certified by the EMDR institute.” You might find self-administered EMDR courses online, but the best results come from working with a qualified and experienced therapist. 

Who is EMDR not suitable for?

EMDR won’t work on someone who’s using substances to mask their emotions. When you actively use drugs or alcohol, you can’t process trauma. Likewise, if you don’t feel safe with the therapist, you won’t get the benefits.

Is it common to cry during EMDR?

People experience a range of emotions, including sadness, anger, and grief, during EMDR sessions, so crying is relatively common. 

  1. https://www.ptsd.va.gov/professional/treat/txessentials/emdr_pro.asp
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC10418657/
  3. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyt.2021.700458/full
  4. https://connect.springerpub.com/content/sgremdr/early/2023/02/07/emdr-2022-0046
  5. https://www.apa.org/topics/psychotherapy/emdr-phases
  6. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9420763/
  7. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8488430/
  8. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0306624X211010290
  9. https://www.emdria.org/find-an-emdr-therapist/
  10. https://www.mindful.org/get-your-mind-and-body-out-of-crisis-mode/
  11. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC10377614/
  12. https://concept.paloaltou.edu/resources/business-of-practice-blog/trauma-focused-therapy-techniques
  13. https://www.ptsd.va.gov/professional/treat/type/disaster_longterm_tx.asp
  14. https://www.simplypsychology.org/psychodynamic.html
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