What is EMDR therapy and how does it work?

PESI Team

What is EMDR Therapy?


Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EDMR) is a type of psychotherapy which is commonly known for treating mental health conditions, such as posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

This interactive psychotherapy technique encourages patients to relive triggering or traumatic experiences in small doses, while the therapist directs the patient’s eye movements. Considered as a more unusual form of therapy, EMDR aims to divert the patient’s emotional response from reliving the trauma; aiming to make the feelings, emotions and thoughts associated with the trauma more manageable. While the patient is exposed to distressing or traumatic memories, the strong psychological response often associated with these triggers can then be reduced while the patient’s attention is focused on eye movements.

How Does EMDR Therapy Work?


EMDR works by using eye movements and other types of bilateral stimulation (BLS) to help the brain process traumatic memories and beliefs.

What is Bilateral Stimulation (BLS)?


Bilateral stimulation is a key component of EDMR – referring to practices which engage both the left and the right side of the brain simultaneously. Generally, when referring to memory association, language processing and positive emotions, the left side of the brain is proven to dominate – while the right side dominates when it comes to visual interpretation, spatial reasoning and negative emotions. By using BLS practices, both sides of the brain are stimulated simultaneously – allowing the patient to make new connections and process traumatic memories.

Examples of BLS in EDMR therapy include:

  • Following the therapist’s finger with your eyes
  • Body scans (slow, rhythmic tapping on specific parts of your body)
  • Following a dot on a screen with your eyes
  • Listening to various tones through headphones, which alternate between left and right audio channels
  • Squeezing a ball in one hand, and then squeezing it in your opposite hand

How Long Does EMDR Therapy Take?


Typically, EMDR treatment takes around 12 separate sessions which, in most cases, will take 12 weeks to complete. Generally, therapists recommend that this treatment is completed in consistent succession – usually on a weekly basis – but this can differ depending on the needs of the client.

EMDR Therapy Process


EMDR therapy itself is split into eight separate phases:

  1. History taking – the therapist will review the patient’s history and identify where they currently are in the treatment process. Patients will be encouraged to speak about their past trauma in order for the therapist to recognize which potentially distressing memories or thoughts should be treated specifically, and if EMDR is the right path for them.

  2. Client preparation – the therapist will then teach the patient various coping mechanisms to deal with reliving past painful experiences – such as deep breathing, releasing tension in your body or mindfulness. Here, the patient will be taught how EMDR works, and practice forms of BLS.

  3. Assessment – this phase is about analyzing the triggering memories and determining which should be targeted, alongside associated components. This is likely to cause the patient distress – which will be measured by a Subjective Units of Disturbance (SUD) Scale, allowing the patient to rate their distress on a scale of 1 – 10. A Validity of Cognition (COD) Scale will also be used to allow the patient to rate how true their belief feels to them on a scale of 1 - 7.

  4. Desensitization – this is the treatment aspect of the process – with the aim of desensitizing the patient’s triggering memory or thought through bilateral stimulation. This phase of EMDR therapy will continue until the patient reaches between 0 – 2 on the SUD scale.

  5. Installation – after the thoughts have been desensitized, patient and therapist jointly identify the target memory while the patient is instructed to recognize the most significant image associated with this memory – and encouraged to strengthen a more positive belief.

  6. Body scan – the goal is for the patient to be experiencing low SUD levels after phases 4 and 5, so the body scan aims to target any lingering tension in the patient’s body. A body scan is used because the effects of trauma can often be felt in the body and cannot always be addressed by logic alone.

  7. Closure – a key phase in the process, the therapist then helps the patient to return to a state of emotional balance – as EMDR can often cause emotional disturbance during the process. This phase will end every EMDR session.

  8. Reevaluation of treatment – each EMDR session post phases one and two will begin with reevaluation. This is where the therapist will evaluate the patient’s level of distress, thoughts and beliefs, and if they have any specific body tension. This part of the EMDR process allows therapists to understand if the process is working, and if any new targets need to be addressed.


Benefits of EMDR Therapy


EMDR is found to be particularly effective for people who have difficulty talking or thinking about their past experiences. Although EMDR was originally considered as a treatment for PTSD, there are also several other mental health conditions that can benefit from EMDR. This can include:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Eating disorders
  • Stress
  • Addiction
  • Panic attacks
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Grief

How to Become an EMDR Therapist


Here at PESI, we pride ourselves on being able to offer extensive support to licensed and aspiring professionals through our diverse range of continuing education courses. Choose our EMDR: Step by Step course to get started – or learn more about the fundamentals of EMDR therapy as an integrative trauma treatment, as well as EMDR and mindfulness.

See our full list of EMDR offerings to understand which is the right EMDR therapy course for you.

Topic: Eye Movement Desensitization & Reprocessing (EMDR)

Tags: EMDR | Therapy Tools

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