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What Is EMDR Therapy And How Does It Work?


Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy has gained quite a bit of popularity in recent years. This type of therapy has shown great results and helps to treat a variety of mental illnesses and conditions. In fact, EMDR often treats certain conditions much faster than traditional therapy, saving clients time, money, and energy from no longer living with emotional distress.

But what is EMDR, and how does it work? This article will introduce you to the EMDR process and explain how it treats various conditions.


What Is EMDR?

brain issues

EMDR is a form of psychotherapy that utilizes eye movement to help heal the brain from traumatic events and emotional distress.

Unlike most traditional forms of therapy, it doesn’t require long conversations about the trauma or the cause of the particular mental illness. Instead, the client and therapist simply identify the cause of the distress and then use guided eye movements and other calming strategies to help the brain process the emotional pain and trauma.


How Does EMDR Work?

girl past move on

The normal state of the brain is towards healing and improvement. However, life events can cause “blockages” that prevent the brain from healing itself. This often manifests as various mental illnesses and disorders, including PTSD, depression, and anxiety.

With the help of a medical or psychiatric professional, clients are guided to move their eyes from side to side rapidly while thinking about a certain event or trauma that caused their distress or mental illness. These rapid eye movements, along with other exercises and prompts by the professional, help the client make associations and process the past so they can move forward from it.

Though the reason why rapid eye movement helps heal the brain is not fully understood, it is thought that EMDR works similarly to rapid eye movement sleep (REM), which is a critical phase in the sleep cycle. REM helps us process our day and recover before waking up for the next day. Since both mechanisms help us process events, they are thought to be similar.

Furthermore, some researchers believe that focusing on eye movements is a healthy distraction while your brain processes the trauma. Moving your eyes distracts you from experiencing the full intensity of processing those memories, so it is much easier to heal from them.


What Are The Eight Phases Of EMDR?


However, it is not enough to just rapidly move your eyes and expect to be healed. EMDR is an eight-phase system, with the eye movements taking up only a few of those phases. Since this is a dramatic treatment, the therapist must prepare the client as much as possible for any side effects or emotional responses. Therefore, the actual treatment may not occur until the second or third session.

Below are the eight phases that makeup EMDR treatment:

  • Phase 1: This is the history-taking phase where the client discusses their mental health with the therapist and what they hope to get out of EMDR. Conversely, the therapist determines if EMDR is the best form of treatment or if something else would suit the client better.
  • Phase 2: The therapist discusses several ways to handle or process emotional distress. Emotional distress may occur during treatment while the brain processes what happened. Having coping strategies is important, especially if this distress occurs between sessions.
  • Phases 3-6: These phases are often lumped together as they happen concurrently. During these stages, the client and therapist identify a memory to work on. The client must identify a visual image of the memory, a negative belief about themselves pertaining to the memory, and any emotions or sensations felt throughout the body while thinking about the memory. These are the stages where the eye movement occurs.
  • Phase 7: This phase is the closure of the session. The client is asked to keep a log of anything that comes up (emotions, mental images, sensations, etc.) between now and the next session that may pertain to the memories being processed.
  • Phase 8: The final phase actually begins in the next session. This is where the client and therapist discuss any progress or issues that came up since the last session. Hopefully, the client is processing the trauma and feeling better, but some people do experience emotional distress and sensations as a side effect of EMDR treatment.


What Conditions Can EMDR Treat?

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing EMDR Therapy

EMDR has been used for a multitude of conditions with great results. In fact, some studies are showing that EMDR is more helpful than traditional forms of therapy for various conditions. Many clients who have been in talk therapy for months or years may find more relief with just a few sessions of EMDR.

Studies have shown that EMDR can provide significant improvements with the following conditions:

  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and trauma
  • Panic disorder
  • Depression
  • Psychosis
  • Stress


Final Thoughts

Though EMDR may seem like a miracle technique, it is important to understand that not everyone will be well suited for this treatment. This is especially the case with those living with trauma, as the process may involve reliving the traumatic event.

Also, note that not all therapists are qualified to treat clients with EMDR. This therapy requires formal training, so you will need to find someone who specializes in EMDR.

Finally, this form of treatment is still fairly new and not fully understood. Though the results seem amazing, some people are skeptical simply because so little is known about the science behind the method.

If you are interested in EMDR therapy, talk with a professional about the process. Make sure you understand what EMDR entails and the potential side effects. You will need to do some prep work to ensure that you are mentally and emotionally ready for this treatment. Though it can work quickly, it may be intense for some people who are not ready.

If you are interested in EMDR or other forms of therapy, then head over to BetterHelp for more information on the many ways that therapy can help your mental health.

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Marie Miguel
the authorMarie Miguel
Marie Miguel has been a writing and research expert for nearly a decade, covering a variety of health-related topics. Currently, she is contributing to the expansion and growth of a free online mental health resource with With an interest and dedication to addressing stigmas associated with mental health, she continues to specifically target subjects related to anxiety and depression.