What to Know about Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) Therapy

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is an evidence-based therapy modality that therapists use to provide trauma-informed care for clients who have previously experienced distressing events. By helping clients process their trauma — while maintaining a safe, contained environment — therapists give clients the skills they need to process harmful memories and their accompanying emotions.

If you’re considering seeking EMDR therapy, read on to learn more about how this therapy modality works and how it can help you.

What is EMDR therapy?

During EMDR therapy sessions, the EMDR therapist guides the client through a series of eye movements. These eye movements engage the brain’s systems that deal with information processing — they’re similar to the way that your eyes move back and forth during REM sleep, which activates a specific part of the brain that is related to memory. The client’s eyes will follow a stimulus while the therapist carefully guides the client through their memories of adverse experiences. This stimulus may be a flashing light on a handheld device especially made for EMDR therapy, an alternating audio stimulus, a tap on one knee and then the other, or another bilateral stimulus. In a way, EMDR therapy hacks the brain’s functionality to help patients process difficult experiences and feel grounded and safe in the present.

In EMDR therapy, clients don’t need to discuss every detail of their trauma with their therapist. They won’t have to relive the experience or recount what happened to them. Much of the processing happens unconsciously, making this approach to trauma therapy helpful in establishing and maintaiing safety and comfort. For this reason and many more, EMDR therapy is now a standard practice for certified therapists who are trained in the EMDR approach.

What is EMDR therapy used to treat?

EMDR therapy is used to treat many mental health conditions. In its original form, it was used to treat post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and the symptoms that occur after a person has gone through a traumatic experience. Now, therapists use EMDR therapy with clients who suffer from anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and more.

EMDR therapy is a treatment that helps individuals feel less “stuck,” so it could also be helpful for clients that find themselves feeling stuck in their work, relationships, passions, art or sport. EMDR therapy is also useful when clients feel stuck in negative thought patterns or emotional cycles and cognitive-based therapy approaches aren’t helpful. Because of this, EMDR therapy is seen as a versatile therapy option for many.

Who is a good candidate for EMDR therapy?

People of all identities and backgrounds are good candidates for EMDR therapy. EMDR therapy can also be used across the agespan, though is most commonly used with adults, as it’s necessary for clients to have a sense of safety and security in their lives before they engage with EMDR therapy.

Strong candidates for EMDR therapy include veterans, survivors of assault (including sexual assault), victims of natural disasters, those who are greiving the loss of a loved one, those who experienced traumatic medical conditions or treatments, and many more experiences. Anyone whose mental health goal includes moving past a difficult past experience is a good candidate for EMDR therapy.

Can EMDR therapy make you worse?

Many people wonder if EMDR therapy can make you feel worse, especially if you’re explicitly accessing painful and traumatic memories. Won’t it hurt to remember harmful memories? Isn’t it best to leave those memories alone?

When we leave painful memories alone, we don’t get the opportunity to process through them and move forward from them. As painful as it may be to uncover those memories, it’s even more painful to try and forget them without using an evidence-based therapy approach like EMDR to address them.

When you engage in EMDR therapy, your therapist will be there to support you. This includes talking with you about your emotional reactions, creating an emotionally safe space, validating how you feel, and affirming your innate strength. With this support, even if thinking back on painful memories makes you feel uncomfortable in the moment, your therapist will be there for you. The ultimate goal of EMDR therapy is to make it so these memories no longer cause trauma reactions, leaving you to a more comfortable daily life without emotional interruption.

When should you not use EMDR therapy?

Because EMDR therapy requires that an individual have a strong sense of security in their daily lives, clients who suffer from substance abuse issues, current abusive relationships, housing insecurity, and other situations that negatively impact their foundation may not fully benefit from EMDR therapy. It’s vital for clients to have strong coping skills ready to use when engaging in EMDR therapy, in case they do become overwhelmed by their traumatic memories.

Clients should also not use EMDR therapy when they don’t yet trust their therapist or there isn’t a strong therapeutic alliance, as it’s vital for the success of EMDR therapy to feel safe around your therapist. Finding a therapist that you feel connected to is an important step of accessing EMDR therapy, and Zencare makes it easy for you to find the right therapist by viewing each therapist’s introductory video. You can also view whether a therapist has certification in offering EMDR therapy on their profile.

What are the dangers of EMDR therapy?

Based on the current research around EMDR therapy, there are no dangers of completing EMDR therapy as a treatment for a relevant mental health condition. However, this is only true when you’re working with a trained, experienced EMDR therapist. EMDR therapists learn from experts how to facilitate EMDR therapy with their clients, including how to handle any emotions that become overwhelming during the session. They will also assess clients for readiness when it comes to beginning EMDR therapy — if you aren’t yet ready for EMDR therapy, you should not begin with it, and your therapist will be able to guide you through that decision.

What is the success rate of EMDR therapy?

There is a high success rate for a reduction in mental health symptoms after completing EMDR therapy. A 2014 study found that 77% of the study’s participants no longer met the criteria for PTSD after completing EMDR therapy. Other studies declare that EMDR therapy is an effective treatment for medical trauma as well as  for those with acute mental illness.

Overall, there is much empirical evidence that supports EMDR’s efficacy in treating mental illness, making it an effective therapy approach.

Download The 8 Phases of EMDR Guide

Why does EMDR therapy work so well?

Many researchers and therapists believe that the dual-activation of both sides of the brain (also called bilateral stimulation) during EMDR therapy allows clients’ minds to make connections across the whole brain, which may be beneficial for the processing of painful memories — think of it as taking a marked detour when there’s construction ahead on the road. Other researchers believe that EMDR therapy changes the brain’s processing capabilities and therefore decreases the intense anxiety, fear, or overwhelming emotion previously present. Another theory is that EMDR therapy replicates the dream state achieved through REM sleep, which promotes access to traumatic memories and gives your brain a better chance of processing them and putting them in the past.

While the mechanism behind the treatment is still under investigation, EMDR therapy is an effective treatment and is becoming a standard of practice in the field of trauma.

How do I prepare for EMDR therapy sessions?

If you’re getting ready to start EMDR therapy, there are a few ways to prepare. The first way to ensure success in EMDR therapy is to build strong rapport with your therapist or find a therapist with whom you feel close. You’ll lean on your relationship with your therapist if EMDR therapy evokes painful emotions or if you find yourself feeling overwhelmed  so finding the right one is paramount. You might also want to consider who else is a part of your support system and who you will turn to when you need to talk with someone outside of a therapy session.

Another great way to prepare for EMDR therapy is to start a feelings journal where you record how you’re feeling throughout the day and week. This journal will give you a way to track the results of EMDR therapy, as well as another resource for processing through what comes up during therapy.

Mindfulness practices may also be helpful to incorporate into your routine as a way of destressing or relaxing before or after EMDR therapy sessions. Mindfulness routines can be a form of self care that gives you time to breathe without the pressure of making your emotions make sense.

Do you talk during EMDR therapy?

There may be some elements of talking during EMDR therapy sessions, but mostly it will be on the part of your therapist. Your therapist will guide your thoughts by prompting you to think about certain aspects of your past, and whether you want to verbally respond or not is up to you.

That being said, there will be a lot of conversation leading up to EMDR therapy sessions as you build rapport with your therapist. Before you begin EMDR treatment, you and your therapist may discuss your background, your presenting issues, or anything else that’s on your mind as you grow your trust with one another. Immediately before beginning EMDR therapy, your therapist may ask you about your history surrounding the painful memory or memories. You can tell them as much or as little as possible, however the therapist will need a basic understanding of the trauma so they can facilitate the treatment.

What does a therapist do during EMDR therapy sessions?

The EMDR therapist acts as facilitator during EMDR therapy sessions. They will guide you verbally while you engage with the bilateral stimulus. Your therapist will ask you a series of questions, many of which do not need verbal answers but are meant to take you back through your memories.

Your EMDR therapist will ask you how you’re feeling physically and if anything comes into your mind as you go through the session. They may ask you to consider how you felt during the traumatic experience, including questions like:

Your therapist may also stay quiet as you continue to reflect on the experience and attend to the bilateral EMDR therapy session, your therapist will check in on you  — you may feel a stroke of insight, emotional fatigue, or other emotions, all of which you can discuss with your therapist.

What happens after an EMDR therapy session?

After an EMDR therapy session, you might feel light-headed physically and emotionally. You might feel a sense of heightened thought but not be able to put a finger on exactly what those thoughts are. Both of these experiences would be normal. If you think of EMDR therapy as a hack into REM sleep, no wonder you end the session a little disoriented — it’s as if you just woke up after a long nap!

What you do after an EMDR therapy session is up to you. However, it’s best to relax after an EMDR therapy session, whatever that looks like for you. Your brain will still be thinking about the experience long after you leave your therapist’s office, so giving it a quiet, calm environment allows it to keep going without interruption.

You might find yourself a bit overwhelmed with emotion after a session, so be sure to take care of yourself. If you aren’t sure how to do that, bring it up with your therapist.

How quickly does EMDR therapy work?

While there are eight phases in traditional EMDR therapy, the amount of time that it takes for EMDR therapy to take effect varies by person. Some people feel results after only four sessions, others take months of work to feel a reduction in their mental health symptoms. More complex trauma takes more time to process through. If your trauma is the result of one event, your path with EMDR therapy will look differently than if your trauma was spread out over years.

However long it takes you to feel the effects of EMDR therapy, remind yourself that you’re taking a brave step towards improving your daily life — sometimes, it takes time for this to come about!

EMDR therapy is a popular and proven method of overcoming the impact of trauma. Many therapists find that using EMDR therapy with their clients helps them feel better in the day-to-day and that EMDR therapy helps get their stuck clients unstuck.