What is EMDR?

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a therapy technique designed for working with distressing or traumatic memories. The theory behind EMDR is that many psychological diculties are the result of distressing life experiences which have not been stored in memory properly and are said to be unprocessed or blocked. These traumatic memories may need some help to become processed, and EMDR is one way to do this.

What is special about trauma memories?

Normal memories are stored by a part of the brain called the hippocampus. You can think of the hippocampus as a sort of librarian which catalogues(processes) events and stores them in the right place. However, some traumatic events (such as accidents, abuse, disasters, or violence) are so overwhelming that the hippocampus doesn’t do its job properly. When this happens memories are stored in their raw, unprocessed, form. These trauma memories are easily triggered, leading them to replay and cause distress over and again.

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a therapeutic technique that utilizes a characteristic motion of the eyes in conjunction with therapeutic guidance to bring about emotional healing, sometimes at an accelerated rate. Although not part of the original EMDR teachings, clinical experiences have repeatedly demonstrated that EMDR also helps accelerate the physical healing process.

What is the history of EMDR?

EMDR has been used by trained mental health professionals since 1989. Its originator, Francine Shapiro PhD, discovered that moving her eyes in certain directions reduced emotional tension. Francine did further investigation into this phenomenon making EMDR the subject of her doctoral thesis in 1987. Integrating her clinical experience, Francine has formulated a unique method which she calls EMDR.

How does EMDR treatment work?

When an upset is experienced, it can become locked in the nervous system with the original picture, sounds, thoughts, feelings, and body sensations. This upset is stored in the brain (and also the body) in an isolated memory network preventing learning from taking place. Old material just keeps getting triggered over & over again and you end up feeling “stuck” emotionally. In another part of your brain, in a separate network, is most of the information you need to resolve the upset. It’s just prevented from linking up to the old stuff. Once processing starts with EMDR, the 2 networks can link up. New information can then come to mind to resolve the old problems.

How does the overall treatment with EMDR look?

EMDR focuses first on the past, second on the present and third on the future. The past is focused on first because it is the past unresolved pain (whether it is childhood or the more recent past) which is causing pain in the present. Dealing with the past is therefore going to the root of the problem. For example, if a client comes in with depression and she has a history of being depressed since a death in her family, we would focus on the time around the death first because it is the root of the depression.


Once the past pain has been cleared, most of the present symptom picture will also be cleared. If anything is left unresolved in the present, it is attended to next.

Then comes preparation for the future. Many people have fears about healing … how their life will change, how they will function with their new perspective on the world, etc. “Future” work is about being prepared.



What will I experience during an EMDR treatment?

Before any EMDR treatment, there is a preparation & assessment phase. The purpose of the preparation phase is to help you feel safe within yourself and to explain and demonstrate EMDR techniques so you know what to expect. The purpose of the assessment phase is to isolate memories to work with in EMDR that are the root of your emotional/physical pain today. The length of time for each of these phases varies per person dependent upon their individual needs.

Once the preparation and assessment phases are complete, the treatment phase begins. You will be asked to focus on a “target” image while following the practitioners fingers or a moving light with your eyes. Once you start the eye movement, you will find it very difficult to focus on the memory. This is normal. The initial focusing on the memory opens the door to the memory, the EMDR completes the processing on a deeper subconscious level.

EMDR is a passive process. Just will be asked to just let whatever happens, happen. You may experience feelings, thoughts, body sensations. You may experience nothing. Whatever you experience, you will be asked to notice it as if you were passing by it on a train rather than being within the experience. If at any time you feel overwhelmed, you only need to raise your hand to stop the process. You will be asked to share what comes up in the break between sets. There are no right or wrong answers. This information will only guide future sets.

How effective is EMDR?

When compared to other methods of therapy (psychoanalysis, cognitive, behavioral, etc), EMDR has been rated as far more effective by mental health professionals. Clients experience emotional healing at an accelerated rate. If we use the metaphor of a driving a car through a tunnel to get to the other side, (where the tunnel represents the journey of healing and the other side of the tunnel represents the healed state), EMDR is like driving your car through the tunnel at very high speeds. Because of this accelerated processing, you should notice improvement within each session.

What is EMDR used to treat?


Anyone who has ever experienced an upset that they have not recovered from. Often these people have one or more of the following symptoms in varying degrees: feeling “stuck”, excess stress/tension, depression, anxiety, restlessness, sleep trouble, fatigue, appetite disturbances, and ongoing physical health concerns despite treatment. In the more severe cases: panic attacks, flashbacks, nightmares, obsessions, compulsions, eating disorder, and suicidal tendencies.

This is very good evidence that EMDR is an effective treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and it is recommended by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) for PTSD.

How long does treatment take?

EMDR sessions are sometimes slightly longer than typical therapy sessions (up to 90 minutes). The number of sessions needed will depend on the type and severity of trauma which you experienced. NICE estimate that 8-12 sessions may be necessary to treat simpler traumas, with more sessions necessary for multiple traumas.