What is EMDR therapy?

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a type of psychotherapy (talk therapy) that helps people recover from traumatic experiences. EMDR has been extensively studied and recognized as an effective treatment by numerous national and international organizations. For people struggling with anxiety or trauma, EMDR can be a life-changing treatment option.

In this article, learn more about EMDR therapy, its benefits, how it works, and how to find an EMDR therapist.

What is EMDR therapy?

EMDR is a psychotherapy technique that combines structured therapy sessions with eye movements or other types of stimulation, such as sounds or tapping. During the session, clinicians use detailed protocols and procedures designed to help the brain access and process memories of traumatic and disturbing experiences.

Although it was originally designed to treat PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder, the lasting, distressing effects of experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event or series of events), EDMR has been applied to help treat many other symptoms and conditions, the symptoms and conditions that put people into treatment. These include anxiety, mood and substance use disorders.

Benefits of EMDR Therapy

Some of the benefits of EMDR therapy compared to other types of psychotherapy include:

  • Usually requires fewer sessions to display results
  • Does not include prolonged exposure to distressing memories
  • Does not require a person to talk extensively about the details of their traumatic experience
  • Does not involve homework or challenge one’s thoughts and beliefs

How does EMDR work?

EMDR is based on the Adaptive Information Processing (AIP) model. The model suggests that people all have an innate system that helps them process new information, make sense of it, and store it in their memory.

However, when a person has a traumatic or very painful experience, the process collapses, and memories and distorted thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations become maladaptively (inappropriately) stored. This inadequate processing of the experience can lead to PTSD and other psychiatric symptoms such as anxiety, depression, and flashbacks.

According to the AIP theory, symptoms disappear when the memory is fully processed. EMDR helps people process memories and allows their brains to store them in a new way related to new thoughts and emotions. This supports recovery by helping the brain to think and feel differently about past events, and to respond differently when triggered by future events.

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Stages of EMDR Treatment

EMDR is a structured eight-stage treatment that includes:

  • Phase 1: History: The therapist records the client’s complete history and assessment. Together, they determine which past memories to target in therapy, discuss current triggers, and plan future goals.
  • Phase 2: Prepare the client: The therapist explains how therapy works and helps the client practice eye movements and other exercises.
  • Stage 3: Assessment: The therapist facilitates assessment, which is a way of activating the target memory in the session. This includes identifying and evaluating all components of memory, such as images, thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations.
  • Stage 4: Desensitization: The client focuses on memory while practicing eye-tracking exercises and reports to the therapist what new ideas have emerged. The therapist will decide what the client should focus on during the next brief session. Often, new ideas that come up will be the focus. Repeat this process until the original memory is no longer distressing.
  • Stage 5: Installation: Installation is the process of reinforcing new thoughts, feelings, and beliefs associated with the initially distressing memory.
  • Stage 6: Body Scan: The therapist asks the client to observe bodily reactions while thinking about the event and new ideas about the memory. Do more eye-tracking exercises if clients report negative physical responses.
  • Phase 7: Shutdown: Shutdown ends the session. If memory is not fully processed during this session, other protocols and procedures are followed to help clients feel safe before the next session.
  • Stage 8: Reassessment: The next session begins with the therapist assessing the client’s progress, discussing new memories that may have arisen since the last session, and working with the client to select the next target memory.

What to expect from an EMDR meeting

Typically, during an EMDR session, a therapist guides a person through a structured eight-step process. This process can help them discover insights and form new ideas while focusing on target memory and engaging in eye movements or other exercises.

As the memory is processed, people may begin to feel less overwhelmed or distressed when thinking about different aspects of the memory. They may start thinking about other painful or distressing memories related to the goals in that session. This is a sign that the memory is being processed and the brain is starting to heal.

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After the session, a person should feel more empowered about their memory and the current situation. They should also be better able to handle future situations.

Effectiveness of EMDR

EMDR is widely regarded as one of the best treatments for PTSD and other trauma- and stress-related disorders. There have been more than 30 active controlled studies of EMDR treatment, some of which have shown that 84%–94% of single trauma patients are free of PTSD after three 90-minute sessions.

It has been recognized as an effective therapy by many organizations, including:

  • American Psychiatric Association
  • American Psychological Association
  • International Society for the Study of Traumatic Stress (ISTSS)
  • National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)
  • Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)
  • Veterans Affairs/Department of Defense
  • Cochrane database of systematic reviews
  • World Health Organization (WHO)

How to Find an EMDR Therapist

EMDR treatment should only be provided by trained and licensed mental health professionals. You can use the EMDR International Association (EMDRIA) Find EMDR Therapist Directory to find EMDR therapists. If you haven’t searched the EMDRIA directory, considerations for finding a therapist include:

  • What is their level of training in EMDR and your specific problem or obstacle?
  • Is their EMDR training approved by EMDRIA?
  • Are they aware of the latest protocols and developments in EMDR?
  • How many cases have they treated with your problem or disease?
  • What is their success rate?

Mental Health Hotline

If you or a loved one is struggling with PTSD or another mental health condition, please contact the SAMHSA National Helpline at 800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.


EMDR is a widely studied and effective form of psychotherapy that can help with symptoms of many mental health disorders, especially PTSD. It is a treatment approach where trained clinicians follow structured protocols to help people safely deal with unresolved, distressing memories that are not adequately stored.

Through an EMDR session, a qualified healthcare provider schedules a series of eye-tracking exercises while prompting the client to consider different aspects of memory. In the process, new insights and ideas emerge, and memories are less painful for the client, both physically and mentally. Repeat this process until the client feels more empowered and in control of their past, present and future.

Finding a skilled, licensed EMDR clinician is important. Make sure your clinician has experience with the EMDR protocol as well as your specific problem or barrier.

Choose the right therapist

VigorTip words

Anyone can have traumatic experiences. While it may not always lead to PTSD, traumatic experiences can lead to other distressing mental health disorders. If you have experienced trauma, you may benefit from EMDR treatment. Talk to your trusted health psychologist to see if EMDR therapy can help you resolve traumatic memories.

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Frequently Asked Questions

  • How does EMDR therapy change the brain?

    Several studies in people with PTSD have shown that EMDR therapy alters areas of the brain that help people distinguish whether a threat is real or not. Essentially, they become less vigilant, a state of constant vigilance.

    Another change occurs in areas of the brain that help people understand new information. EMDR seems to help a person improve their thinking and processing skills.

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  • Can EMDR treat mental health conditions other than PTSD?

    EMDR was developed for the treatment of traumatic memory and its effectiveness has been demonstrated in the treatment of PTSD. However, it is also used to help treat symptoms of anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, dissociative disorder, eating disorders, substance use disorders, and sleep disorders caused by traumatic experiences.

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  • Who should not have EMDR treatment?

    People who are actively experiencing trauma should not use EMDR therapy, and if a person is actively abusing alcohol, drugs, or other substances, EMDR therapy should not be attempted. It is also important to note that EMDR will only help with psychiatric symptoms associated with the traumatic experience. If a person’s psychiatric symptoms are not the result of a distressing experience, EMDR may not be helpful.

  • Is EMDR therapy the same as hypnosis?

    No, EMDR is a specific treatment based on adaptive information processing theory, while hypnosis is not. Some of the clear differences between EMDR and hypnosis include that hypnosis puts the patient in a relaxed mental state and is more suggestive, whereas EMDR deliberately attempts to associate the patient with an emotionally disturbing experience.