EMDR Therapy - The Complete Guide

EMDR Therapy - The Complete Guide

Table of Contents

What is EMDR Therapy?

EMDR therapy is a form of psychotherapy. The goal of EMDR is to help individuals heal from the emotional distress originating from disturbing or stressful life events. Dr. Francine Shapiro invented EMDR therapy in the late 1980s.1

Since then, studies show that EMDR therapy provides people with therapeutic rewards and benefits that could take longer to reach using other methods.1 Resolving emotional distress can take longer when only language is used to talk through issues. EMDR therapy applies rhythmic sweeping eye motions, tapping, or tones during a session to process emotional distress.

EMDR therapy is being used more often in addiction treatment as it becomes established in the medical community.

What Does the Abbreviation EMDR Mean?

EMDR is the abbreviation for eye movement desensitization reprocessing therapy.

What Methods Make EMDR Therapy Work?

When a person is wounded, the body works on closing the wounded area. If there is something stuck inside the injury or reinjury happens before properly healing, it can become infected and cause pain. Once these hazards are extracted, the injury repairs itself.

EMDR therapy operates in a similar way on a mental and emotional level. The brain processes information to benefit and cultivate better mental health. If the information processing system of the brain has imbalances or blockages caused by upsetting experiences, an emotional wound that stays open and inflamed can result. This “mental wound” can cause significant suffering and distress.

After the obstacle is eliminated, healing begins. EMDR sessions assist clients in activating the body and brain’s natural healing mechanisms through rhythmic movements.

How Do Rapid Eye Movements Resolve Disturbing Memories & Trauma?

The rapid eye movements (REMs) that EMDR uses are the same eye motions that occur when a person dreams. REMs during this therapy help reprocess the memory out of short-term memory storage and into long-term memory storage. As a result, there is less emotionally-charged short-term memory. Rather than the memory feeling “new and raw”, it is recalled as “distant” and less emotionally-charged.

For those undergoing EMDR treatment, this shift can happen quickly, remove any negative blocks, reprocess the information and give the person relief from the original problem.

What are the Side Effects of EMDR?

One of the biggest benefits of EMDR is that, unlike medications, it has no known side effects. 

Treating Anxiety and Addiction

EMDR for Anxiety

Anxiety-related issues and disorders can develop from experiencing disturbing events. A NIMH (National Institute of Mental Health) report states that:2

EMDR therapy can help treat painful or upsetting life events that lead to anxiety issues.

EMDR for Addiction Treatment

EMDR as part of an addiction treatment plan helps address the underlying roots of substance abuse. Since addictions may stem from multiple roots, past traumas and disturbing memories often play big roles in addiction. Anxiety- or trauma-related issues can contribute to someone abusing substances. Treatment for those issues can help bolster addiction recovery.

How is EMDR Therapy Conducted?

EMDR treatment happens within an 8-stage process. The therapy combines different processes and methods to give clients the greatest amount of benefits and advantages.

This treatment focuses on the past, what’s happening right now, as well as the future.

Past: Disturbing past events are rooted out.

Present: Situations that are going on at present that are causing distress are pinpointed.

Future: To foster positive actions in the future, skills and different attitudes are developed.

Phase 1: Background and History

Phase 1 uncovers the various symptoms needing resolution. Phase 1 also helps map out things the client requires for a better life in the future.

The individual’s history is recorded by the therapist. Then, a plan of treatment is developed that covers possible areas that need to be addressed during EMDR treatment sessions, including:

Disturbing memories and relevant past incidents

Current situations that are causing emotional or mental distress

Developing behaviors and skills to help deal with situations that happen in the future so that they are not as wounding

To start, childhood experiences could be the main focus during EMDR therapy. A childhood review is conducted to determine if childhood issues are now impacting the person’s life. Next comes exploring adulthood issues. As clients gain better insight of how different situations affected them, the way is cleared for behavioral changes as emotional distresses are eliminated.

Phase 2: Preparation

Once a list of areas to address is developed, the therapist teaches the client ways to deal with distressing emotions. Skills taught include stress management skills and how to use guided imagery to handle negative emotions both during and after EMDR sessions. EMDR therapy aims to create rapid, productive changes while keeping the client balanced throughout the process.

During Phases 3 to 6, a specific area is targeted for processing.

Phase 3: Assessment

The therapist works with the client so he or she reveals:

A detailed mental picture that's connected to the recollection being addressed

A negative point of view regarding him or herself that is related to the memory

The body sensations and feelings that are connected to the image and negative belief

A positive belief is also determined

Phase 4: Desensitization

Phase 4 entails the therapist helping the client concentrate on the areas identified in Phase 3 – the image, the associated negative ideas, and body sensations while performing EMDR processing.

EMDR processing uses rhythm. Some therapists endorse using sweeping eye motions, and others use sounds or taps. The therapist determines which type would work best for the client. Attention to the things that are happening naturally is the focus as these areas are explored.

Once each set is done, the client is asked to “blank out” his or her mind. Next, the client describes the feelings, thoughts, body sensations, memories and images that come to mind. The therapist decides how to proceed based on how the client responds.

The rhythmic sets with focused attention repeat multiple times throughout a session. If it gets too stressful or difficult for the client, the counselor uses EMDR methods to get the client moving in the right direction.

Phase 5: Installation

When the distress connected to the memory is removed, the therapist asks the client to think about the positive belief they discussed at the beginning of the set (or the client can change it for a new positive belief). The client is asked to focus on that positive belief the next time a disturbing event occurs.

Phase 6: Body Scan

Phase 6 involves reviewing any past traumas that are creating stress and tension. If any stress and strain is left, the client and counselor keep working on addressing those events to reprocess the associated feelings.

Phase 7: Closure

Phase 7 involves the client doing some journal writing. The purpose of journaling is so that the client has a reference of the images and methods of dealing with disturbing recollections that were learned during Phase 2.

Phase 8: Reevaluation

Phase 8 is a progress review. The client and therapist review the relevant past events, the current experiences that cause distress, and project how future events will require different responses to avoid upset.

What Can a Person Expect During EMDR Therapy?

In the first EMDR session, the therapist takes down a client’s history. Then, disturbing memories are identified and listed in order of occurrence.

Each memory is taken separately.

In 30-second bursts, rhythmic sweeping eye movements, tapping, or sounds are performed by the client while the therapist talks about:

The image that comes to mind that is related to the memory
The negative beliefs the client associates with the memory
How that memory makes the client feel emotionally and physically
What positive belief the client would rather have associated with the memory

As the person explores images and thoughts, practical things are picked up which replace negative thoughts, feelings and reactions.

A broad range of emotions can happen as a client processes a memory, which is a signal that mental blocks are being removed and that therapy is successful. By the client creating a safe and welcoming space for mind healing, he or she is allowing the distress to process through.

Questioning About Images, Feelings, Thoughts, or Sensations

Once the memory is recalled, the therapist asks the client to clear his or her mind. Then, the therapist asks the client to describe the images, feelings, thoughts, and body sensations that are going on in the moment. Depending on the client’s feedback, the therapist may choose another memory to work on or end the session.

As the set is acted out, the brain makes essential connections that change the memory from a distressing experience and resolves it into a learning experience. Now, new memories, emotions and thoughts can appear in the newly cleared space.

Follow Up Therapy

During follow-up EMDR therapy sessions, how traumatic memories are being handled are reviewed. The process is complete for a particular recollection when the memory is not a source of emotional distress anymore. The client continues journaling any recollections or emotions that may come up. Journaling these feelings and memories is what helps to bring closure. Journaling also helps the client remember the skills and coping methods learned during EMDR therapy.

Alternative Methods – Sweeping Eye Movement

The counselor quickly moves a hand from side to side close to the client’s face. To track the moving hand, the client follows with only the eyes (not the whole head). The therapist then asks the client to envision an upsetting memory. After about 20 movements, the therapist asks the client what thoughts, emotions or trauma events are present. Then the set of hand motions is done again.

The process continues until the memory becomes less disturbing and is associated with positive beliefs and thoughts about one’s self. One way is to associate the thought, “I did my best.” with the memory to resolve it. Many intense emotions can surface during an EMDR session, but at the end of the session the client should experience a significant decrease in the level of disturbance.

How Fast Does EMDR Work?

The amount of sessions someone needs to have a successful outcome will depend on the person. Length of treatment can vary anywhere from 3 to 10 sessions. Sessions can last an average of 60 – 90 minutes.

Commonly, people suffering from one adulthood trauma event could be treated with great success in as little as 5 hours using EMDR.3 Those individuals who experienced multiple traumas could require more sessions. Persistent and positive effects from treatment can happen in just 5 to 8 weeks.3

One study comparing PTSD sufferers who had undergone EMDR sessions beside those who didn’t found that at the end of 6 months:3

So, this therapy seems to be effective and fast. We will explore treating PTSD in more detail in the next section.


EMDR therapy used for treating PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) in recent years has seen successful outcomes. Research reports that people who had undergone this therapy showed an 84% reduction in PTSD diagnosis and a 68% decrease in PTSD symptoms.4

Both children and adults can get PTSD. War veterans, abused youths and people who have experienced assaults, accidents, abuse, natural catastrophes and other losses or traumas can develop PTSD.

A report by the National Center for PTSD states:5

7-8 of 100 Americans likely will experience PTSD at least once

8 million people in the United States contract PTSD during each year

Organizations that endorse EMDR as an effective trauma treatment include:6

American Psychiatric Association

Word Health Organization

US Department of Defense

US Department of Veterans Affairs

EMDR Treatment for Trauma

About 90% of people in the United States say they were subject to at least one traumatic episode in their lives.7 Many people experienced more than one traumatic experience.

A trauma can wreak devastation in a person’s life. After the trauma, he or she can feel helpless, out of control, angry and fearful. EMDR therapy helps give control and empowers the client. The emotional awareness EMDR allows leaves the client space for developing a positive outlook. A renewed empowerment gives room for longer-lasting, healthier recoveries from the suffering that trauma causes.

Is EMDR Therapy Best for You?

EMDR therapy has no side effects and has a high potential for rewards and benefits. Speak with your healthcare or mental health professional about EMDR therapy. EMDR therapy can significantly improve someone’s mental wellbeing when done by a qualified counselor and can improve recovery during addiction treatment

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