What is EMDR Therapy?

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a kind of therapy for people with emotional disturbances caused by trauma, particularly those who live with PTSD. Francine Shapiro, Ph.D. created EMDR in the late 1980s, and studies have consistently found it to be an effective treatment option.

Doctor Shapiro starting developing this technique after she noticed that certain eye movements helped her cope with trauma in her personal life. From the first clinical trial, it was clear that changing the way a person uses their eyes when they talk about trauma can help them process it better. This became the basis for what is now EMDR, which can start easing symptoms of PTSD and other anxiety disorders in as little as one session.

How Does EMDR Work?

In the years since EMDR’s initial development, psychologists have further refined the technique. Now, practitioners follow a specific set of steps for each EMDR appointment. Before the EMDR section of the appointment, clinicians take the following steps:

  • Learning the Patient’s History and Planning the Treatment: In the first few sessions, licensed EMDR therapists learn about the patient’s trauma history. The knowledge they gain from these discussions helps guide the treatment plan.
  • Preparation: In order to prepare the patient for EMDR, therapists go over a few important coping mechanisms. Patients get tools for dealing with trauma while in EMDR and throughout daily life. Depending on the patient, the preparation phase may last between one and four sessions.
  • Assessment: This step happens during each appointment before EMDR can begin. Therapists use the Subjective Units of Disturbance (SUD) scale in order to determine how the patient feels at that moment.

After the patient and therapist complete these initial steps, they can move into the EMDR phase of the session. During EMDR, patients experience:

  • Desensitization: Patients talk about negative thoughts and trauma while specific eye movements make the emotional reactions less powerful.
  • Installation: Therapists suggest positive thoughts that can replace hurtful ones.
  • Body Scan: Therapists talk about the negative thoughts that the patients had experienced. Patients then tell therapists where they feel physical symptoms or tension.
  • Closure: Clinicians check in with patients and their emotions. The goal is to ensure that patients feel better than they did before the session began. The therapist may then suggest things for the patient to do in between appointments in order to improve mental health.

Who Can EMDR Help?

While many people think of EMDR therapy as a treatment option for people with PTSD, anyone struggling with emotional disturbances in response to trauma can benefit from EMDR. This type of therapy may be used to treat conditions such as:

Is EMDR Effective?

Understandably, some people are skeptical about how well EMDR can work. However, studies continue to find that EMDR is effective in treating many mental health disorders. Much of this research focuses on the profound effects that EMDR can have on people living with PTSD.

In a meta-analysis of many studies on the subject, researchers found that not only was EMDR effective in treating PTSD, but it may be more effective than trauma-focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). In many cases, patients can see a full remission of PTSD symptoms. Importantly, EMDR appears to help patients quickly. Some people see a significant decrease in symptoms after just one session.

Studies regarding EMDR as a treatment for other disorders are newer, but they show promise. One recent study found that EMDR can be just as effective as CBT in treating panic disorder. CBT is considered the gold standard in treating anxiety disorders.