What Is EMDR Therapy?
EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) is a therapy model developed to treat complex trauma. It has since been used to treat a wide range of other mental health issues. This therapy technique is based on the idea that traumatic memories, negative life experiences or negative beliefs can feel stuck, creating emotional distress when a person remembers these events. People often describe this as “I know it’s over, but my body acts as if it’s still happening.”
The nervous system’s job is to keep you safe. It usually does this well, but after a trauma or another negative life experience, the nervous system can become easily activated long after the danger has passed. EMDR therapy helps you process these traumas by using alternating left-right (bilateral) stimulation (eye movements, tapping or audio stimulation). This stimulation is done while the therapist gently helps you focus on the traumatic memory. This process is believed to tap into your body’s natural ability to heal itself, reducing the trauma’s emotional impact.
What conditions are treated with EMDR therapy?
EMDR is associated with trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder, but it has been shown to be effective for other mental health issues.
EMDR does not eliminate mood disorders such as depression, but it can be helpful in managing the symptoms. Through EMDR, you can strengthen your coping skills, improve your view of yourself and work towards envisioning a positive future.
Anxiety, Panic Disorder, Phobias, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
If you have an anxiety-related disorder, you may have developed creative ways to manage these symptoms by either avoiding anxiety-provoking situations or using elaborate rituals to calm the anxiety. These methods initially seem like a good idea but often result in additional difficulties. EMDR can minimize anxiety in multiple ways:
- Targeting the initial event that triggered the anxiety
- Strengthening healthier beliefs about yourself and your abilities (“I can do this”)
- Using the bilateral stimulation to visualize succeeding in future events
Acute Stress Disorder or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
EMDR is best known for its ability to help heal all sorts of trauma. Distressing memories are processed in a way that reduces emotional distress. This also increases the feeling of emotional and physical safety.
What Are the Phases of EMDR Therapy?
There are seven phases of EMDR therapy. Some of these phases may be combined in a single therapy session, but the entire process should contain all of these steps.
The first phase of EMDR is similar to the beginning phases of any form of therapy. The therapist will learn about your history and work with you to develop a treatment plan outlining the specific memories or incidents that will be the focus of therapy.
Because parts of EMDR can increase the intensity of emotions, the preparation phase is a time when your therapist will introduce you to several ways to manage these emotions. These can include deep breathing or grounding techniques. These techniques will probably be reviewed throughout all phases of EMDR.
This phase of EMDR is also known as “Access and Activate.” In this phase, you will be asked to identify one of the memories/events that you listed in phase one. You and the therapist will explore specific components of these, including:
- Your body’s reactions
- The negative beliefs associated with the memory (“I’m not safe” or “I’m not good enough”)
- Any related details or emotions
This is the phase that most people associate with EMDR. Alternating bilateral stimulation (bilateral eye movements, tapping or buzzing sensations) is used to process the events that were identified in the previous phase. This phase will be repeated several times until there is little to no emotional distress when you think about the event.
In the installation phase, the therapist does bilateral stimulation again, but this time asks the client to associate the event with a positive belief (“I’m safe now” or “I am worthy, no matter what”).
During this phase, you are guided through a body scan exercise to ensure there is a feeling of safety and calmness. This phase is also a way to strengthen the new positive belief.
Reevaluation and Closure
Your therapist will use calming exercises to ensure you are stable and safe. This is also the time when you can discuss the experience and whether additional therapy is needed.
Is EMDR therapy effective compared to other therapies?
EMDR was first developed in the late 1980s, but for many of those years, some have viewed this form of therapy as controversial. However, recent studies suggest EMDR is just as effective as cognitive-behavioral therapy in treating trauma and other mental health issues. Groups who work with veterans, first responders and disaster survivors have also accepted EMDR as a form of trauma treatment. EMDR therapy clients often require fewer sessions and report significant relief from their symptoms.
Is EMDR Therapy Right for Me?
EMDR is a non-invasive, relatively quick way to receive relief from a variety of mental health issues. It can work well for people whose current lives are impacted by past events (either a major event or smaller events that are still upsetting) or by negative beliefs preventing them from living the life they want. If you are interested in learning more, make an appointment with a licensed therapist trained in EMDR.
EMDR therapy can also be done through online teletherapy. Join the Nobu app community and get connected with a licensed therapist who can help. You’ll also get access to a host of mental wellness tools, including free lessons, meditation and journaling features. Learn more or download Nobu in the App store or Google Play store.
Edited by – Melissa Carmona
As the content manager at Advanced Recovery Systems, Melissa Carmona puts years of writing and editing experience to work helping people understand substance abuse, addiction and mental health disorders. Melissa is a Florida State University graduate with bachelor’s & master’s degrees in communication and creative writing… Read more.
Written by – Valerie Larson-Howard, LCSW
Valerie Larson-Howard is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker with over twenty years of experience providing therapy to people from all walks of life. She has a private counseling practice in Tulsa, Oklahoma where she is has the privilege of providing a safe place for her clients to work through the hardest parts of their lives. She believes that in today’s “good vibes only” culture, it is even more important for us to embrace the hard conversations and the uncomfortable emotions.
She loves how the general public has become more aware of mental health issues and she hopes this awareness will reduce the stigma associated with mental health. Because of this, she is always looking for ways to provide accurate and useful information to a wider audience, and writing is a perfect way to do this.Read more.
Medically Reviewed by – Dr. Angela Phillips
Angela is a licensed therapist and clinical researcher, and has worked in public, private, government, and not-for-profit organizations, across clinical and research-oriented roles. Angela’s clinical and research experience has included suicide prevention, cognitive behavioral… Read more.
- American Psychological Association. “Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) Therapy.” July 31, 2017. Accessed September 1, 2021.
- EMDR International Association. “What is EMDR Therapy?” Accessed September 1, 2021.
- Beavauis, Danielle; McCarthy, Elissa; Norman, Sonya; Hamblen, Jessica. “Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) for PTSD.” U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs: National Center for PTSD, January 10, 2020. Accessed September 1, 2021.