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What is EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing)?

EMDR is a highly effective therapy for treating post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.  “Trauma” is a term we use to describe what happens to us when we go through a very stressful event.  Traumatic events can be what we call “Big T” events like childhood abuse, rape, robbery, earthquake, or similar situations.  PTSD can also result from the cumulative effects of “little t” events, such as being shamed as a child, too many moves or losses, or anything else that causes a great deal of stress to us.

EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. This long phrase describes a technique first developed by Dr. Francine Shapiro in 1989. It refers to a method of using “bilateral stimulation” of the brain, either through the client moving their eyes back and forth, listening to tones that alternate from side to side, or lightly tapping the client’s hands left and right.   If you think about it, we use bilateral stimulation all the time; for instance, we go for a walk to think through a problem, we enjoy music more when it’s played in stereo, we often tap our feet or our hands in time with music or when we’re nervous.  And, while we’re asleep, our eyes move back and forth while we’re dreaming (Rapid Eye Movement, or REM, stage sleep).  Our brains process more information, and process it differently, when both sides are used at once.

How does EMDR work?

EMDR therapy is an integrative psychotherapy method that uses a technique called bilateral stimulation to repeatedly activate opposite sides of the brain. Therapists often use eye movements to facilitate bilateral stimulation. These eye movements mimic the period of sleep referred to as rapid eye movement or REM sleep, and this portion of sleep is frequently considered to be the time when the mind processes the recent events in the person’s life.

EMDR seems to help the brain reprocess the trapped memories in such a way that normal information processing is resumed. Therapists often use EMDR to help clients uncover and process beliefs that developed as the result of relational traumas, or childhood abuse and/or neglect. For a more detailed explanation please visit the EMDR Institute, Inc.

Why does EMDR help?

We are learning more and more about how the brain processes information. To put it simply, our brains are designed to process information and experiences, so that we can learn from them. Most of our experiences are stored in what is called “explicit memory”. However, some events, commonly called “traumas”, are so disturbing to us for various reasons that our brain becomes overwhelmed by emotion and unable to properly process the event. It becomes “stuck” or “locked in” to what we call “implicit memory”. When we find ourselves reacting almost or completely unconsciously, or having flashbacks or nightmares about an event, or fears or emotions that don’t make sense to us, it is likely that we are experiencing the results of unresolved trauma. Implicit memories don’t feel like they are in the past. When they are experienced, they feel as though they are happening now. Because they can feel very uncomfortable, we often avoid talking or thinking about these types of memories, but they still affect us in our daily living.

EMDR seems to work by helping the brain to “unlock” these stuck implicit memories, and allow them to be reprocessed and appropriately stored.  The combination of bilateral stimulation, while being helped by a therapist to think of the troubling event, and allowing the experiencing of the emotions connected with the event, seem to stimulate the brain into doing what it was designed to do — in this case, heal the trauma.

What else can EMDR help with?

EMDR is an extremely well-researched technique that has been shown to be effective in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder, which is a set of symptoms remaining after severe stressors that include intrusive thoughts or memories of the event, avoidance of emotions and situations that are reminiscent of the event, and hyper-arousal symptoms, such as irritability, panic, sleep disturbances, and extreme startle reactions. It may be helpful in other disorders that originate following a distressing experience, such as phobias, anxieties, pain disorders, and depression.

EMDR is a clinical tool, and only one of many that a qualified therapist might use. Before using EMDR, the therapist will assess the client by taking a detailed history, and assess the client’s ability to tolerate strong emotional feelings inside and outside of the therapy session. Preparation may take one session, or it may take a longer period of time, during which the client will be learning many other important skills to help handle emotional material. It is extremely important that treatment with EMDR be done only with clinicians who have been properly trained, as evidenced by listing on the official EMDR website (

What Happens in EMDR Therapy?

During an EMDR session, the client will, with the therapist’s help, select a target memory to work on, generally one that is causing some disturbance or upset. The therapist will help the client focus on the memory of the event, its attendant emotions and sensations, and beliefs that the client has formed about themselves as a result of the event. Some form of bilateral stimulation, whether eye movements, tapping, or sounds, will be used.  I use a small machine that has buzzers that you hold in each hand. They buzz in one hand then the other to stimulate both sides of the body. It’s simple and painless.

Clients are asked to uncritically allow their thoughts and associations to flow. It may well be that the original target memory leads to other memories or related issues. As each association is processed, bilateral stimulation continues, until the original issue is no longer disturbing.

Clients may experience strong emotion during an EMDR session, and they may also continue to process information between sessions. This is why preparation and assessment with a properly trained clinician is essential. Preparation will include helping the client develop and strengthen skills in self-calming and the containment of strong emotion.

Courtesy of EMDR International Association