EMDR—Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing—uses eye movements or other types of bilateral stimulation, such as light bars and pulsars, to help clients to process distressing memories and beliefs. EMDR was created as a treatment for trauma, and it works well to address post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). However, EMDR can also be used to address any past or current life experiences or beliefs that are creating problems, even if these experiences do not feel traumatic.

According to the EMDR International Association, EMDR can be used to address the following conditions:

  • Physical abuse, sexual abuse, neglect, and emotional abuse
  • Distressing memories (combat experiences, accidents, physical or sexual assault, etc.)
  • Complicated grief
  • Substance use
  • Phobias (fear of flying, etc.)
  • Panic attacks
  • Pain disorders
  • Dissociation
  • Performance anxiety
  • Stress reduction
  • Personality disorders

What is EMDR Like?

EMDR has shown to be highly effective in a short period of time; however, it does involve eight phases. The length will depend on the number of traumas; adults with one traumatic event to process can see a dramatic improvement in a matter of hours, whereas sufferers of multiple traumas generally take longer.

Phase One: First, the therapist and patient work together to find potential targets for EMDR processing by reviewing the patient’s history. The goal is to identify distressing memories or present situations that cause distress. The emphasis is placed on how the patient can develop certain skills that will help them in the future.

Phase Two: In the second phase, the focus is on helping the patient develop different ways to handle emotional distress. Stress reduction techniques and the use of imagery may be used during the session or taught to be implemented afterward.

Phase Three to Six: During these phases, a target is identified and the EMDR processing procedure is used. The patient must identify three things: 1) a vivid image associated with the memory, 2) a negative belief about themselves, 3) related body sensations and emotions, and 4) a new positive belief to replace it. Then, the therapist will ask the client to focus on the image, negative thought, and body sensations as they implement bilateral stimulation. The length of the set will depend on the client’s needs. After this is finished, the therapist will lead the patient to a blank, meditative state, and ask about what feelings or thoughts come up. Then, they may approach a new focus of attention in a new set; this might happen multiple times through a session. Once a client reports no more distress around a memory, the therapist will ask them to focus on the positive, replacement thought.

Phase Seven: During phase seven, the therapist will close the session and ask the patient to keep track of anything that comes up during the week. They will also remind them of any self-calming techniques developed during phase two.

Phase Eight: Phase eight is the beginning of the next session. It involves assessing the progress made from the EMDR therapy so far and pivoting the strategy accordingly.