What is EMDR? A Concise Overview of the Therapy Technique

What is EMDR? Let’s Start with the Birds-Eye View

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a psychotherapy technique that has gained recognition and approval from numerous mental health organizations for its effectiveness in treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

What is EMDR?

During EMDR therapy sessions, the therapist guides the patient through focused attention on eye movements or other forms of bilateral stimulation, such as tapping or sounds, while recalling traumatic memories.

This process is believed to promote information processing and neural integration, enabling the brain to resolve emotional distress and reduce the impact of traumatic memories.

Despite its success in treating many mental health conditions, EMDR has also faced controversies and debates regarding its effectiveness and the role of eye movements in the therapeutic process.

Key Takeaways

  • EMDR is a psychotherapy technique used to treat trauma-related mental health disorders.
  • The therapy involves bilateral stimulation, such as eye movements, to promote information processing and neural integration for healing.
  • EMDR’s effectiveness and the role of eye movements have been debated, but it has gained recognition and approval from mental health organizations.
Cited from: https://www.therapywithlillyana.com/emdr

History of EMDR

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) has garnered significant attention and recognition since its introduction in the late 20th century. The history of EMDR can be traced back to 1987 when Dr. Francine Shapiro developed the technique as a novel treatment for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Designed to facilitate the reprocessing of traumatic memories, EMDR has since evolved into a comprehensive approach to mental health and healing.

The journey of EMDR began when Dr. Shapiro, a psychologist and researcher, discovered the links between eye movements and the alleviation of emotional distress from her own experiences.

What is EMDR?

She then conducted a series of controlled experiments, which laid the foundation for EMDR as a therapeutic intervention. Over the years, EMDR has undergone rigorous scientific scrutiny, with research highlighting its efficacy in treating various psychological disorders beyond PTSD.

In the development of EMDR, history-taking plays a crucial role in the therapeutic process of identifying important life events and traumatic experiences that contribute to an individual’s current symptoms. This information guides the treatment plan and helps target the core beliefs, emotions, and bodily sensations associated with distressing memories.

As EMDR evolved, it incorporated elements from various therapeutic modalities such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, psychodynamic therapy, and client-centered therapy.

In addition, bilateral stimulation, which includes methods like eye movements, tactile stimulation, and auditory tones, became an essential component of the technique to facilitate the processing of traumatic memories.

What is EMDR?

Francine Shapiro’s work has led to the development of standardized protocols and training programs for EMDR practitioners worldwide.

Today, EMDR is recognized as an evidence-based treatment by reputable organizations such as the World Health Organization, the American Psychological Association, and the US Department of Veterans Affairs. As a result, countless mental health professionals have adopted EMDR into their clinical practice, providing relief and healing to individuals struggling with trauma, anxiety, depression, and other mental health concerns.

The Basic Principle of EMDR

One of the fundamental components of EMDR involves the use of bilateral stimulation, which includes eye movements, taps, or tones, to engage both hemispheres of the brain.

This stimulation helps activate the brain’s natural healing process, allowing individuals to process and integrate traumatic memories more effectively.

The basis of this therapy is rooted in the Adaptive Information Processing (AIP) Model, which posits that the brain has an innate capacity to heal from psychological trauma when given the appropriate tools.

What is EMDR?

The actual EMDR session consists of eight phases, during which the therapist works closely with the client to identify specific memories and emotions.

As the client recalls these memories, the therapist guides them through a series of lateral eye movements, taps, or tones. This process helps reduce the emotional impact of the memories and promotes a healthier, more adaptive perspective on past events.

In accordance with the AIP model, EMDR therapy aims to help individuals access and process their traumatic memories, allowing them to integrate these experiences into their overall understanding of themselves and the world around them.

This integration leads to the reduction of distressing symptoms and helps clients develop more adaptational beliefs and behaviors.

EMDR has been widely researched and is supported by numerous empirical studies as an effective treatment for psychological issues, particularly in the realm of trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The therapy has also been endorsed by leading mental health organizations, such as the American Psychological Association and the World Health Organization, as a first-line treatment for PTSD.

What is EMDR?

In summary, the basic principle of EMDR therapy revolves around the use of bilateral stimulation in conjunction with the Adaptive Information Processing Model to help individuals process and integrate traumatic memories, ultimately leading to a reduction in distressing symptoms and healthier coping mechanisms.

This approach has been extensively researched and recognized as an effective form of psychotherapy for a variety of psychological issues.

What Is The Adaptive Information Processing Model?

Under normal circumstances, when an event occurs, the brain processes the information, learning from the experience and storing it for future reference. For instance, touching a hot frying pan can result in pain. The brain processes this information and learns to not touch a hot pan again to prevent harm, which is an adaptive response.

However, according to the AIP model, this natural information processing system might be impaired when traumatic or very distressing events occur. Such experiences cause an overload and the brain may be unable to process the information completely.

As a result, the event and its associated emotions, physical sensations, and beliefs are stored in the brain in a “raw” and unprocessed state — just as they were experienced at the time.

These unprocessed memories are believed to be the foundation for many mental health issues, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, depression, and more.

According to AIP, these unprocessed traumatic memories can be triggered by current situations that are similar to or reminiscent of past trauma.

Let’s take an example of a person who was involved in a car accident and didn’t fully process the experience. Later on, this person might experience extreme fear and anxiety when trying to drive or even when just riding in a car. According to the AIP model, the high levels of fear and anxiety are due to the unprocessed memories of the accident. The present situation of being in a car is triggering the unprocessed traumatic memories.

Based on this understanding, EMDR therapy aims to help the brain access these unprocessed traumatic memories and complete the information processing. The result should be a more adaptive understanding of the experience, reduced distress associated with the memory, and improved functional behaviors and responses to similar future occurrences. To continue with our example, after successful EMDR therapy, the person formerly scared of cars should feel far less anxiety and be able to drive or ride in cars again.

What is EMDR?

Understanding the EMDR Process

What is EMDR?
cited: https://www.emdria.org/blog/how-artwork-makes-emdr-therapy-more-approachable/

This section covers the main components of the EMDR process.


During the assessment phase, the therapist assesses the individual’s target memory by gathering information about past events that may have contributed to their emotional distress. Identifying specific memories related to the individual’s issue is crucial for the success of the therapy.


Desensitization is a key stage in the EMDR process, as it focuses on reducing the distress related to the target memory. The therapist utilizes bilateral stimulation, such as eye movement, to help the individual process the disturbing emotions. As a result, the level of distress associated with the memory decreases.


In the installation phase, the therapist helps the individual replace negative beliefs with positive ones. By doing so, the person can develop a healthier perspective of the distressing memory. This stage further aids in the reduction of emotional distress and promotes personal growth.


Re-evaluation involves reassessing the progress made during the previous stages of the EMDR process. The therapist and the individual review the changes in their emotional and physical sensations related to the target memory. This step ensures that the resolution has occurred, and the positive beliefs have been integrated.


The closure phase of the EMDR process is essential to bring a sense of completion to the therapy session. The therapist ensures that the individual feels calm and stable. They may introduce additional stress reduction techniques that the person can use to maintain emotional balance between sessions.

Body Scan

During the body scan, the individual focuses on any body sensations related to the target memory. This step helps identify unresolved negative physical sensations linked to the distressing memory. By addressing these sensations, the healing process continues, promoting overall well-being.

Overall, EMDR is a structured and effective approach to addressing emotional distress from traumatic experiences. By breaking down the process into its integral components, it becomes easier to comprehend and implement the therapy, leading to successful outcomes.

What is EMDR?

EMDR and Mental Health Conditions

This section will discuss the application of EMDR for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Anxiety and Depression, and Addictions.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

EMDR has been widely recognized as an effective treatment for individuals suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD is a mental health condition that can develop following a traumatic event, often causing symptoms such as flashbacks, nightmares, and severe anxiety. EMDR therapy helps patients reprocess traumatic memories, leading to a reduction in symptoms and improved mental health.

During EMDR sessions, the therapist guides the patient in focusing on a disturbing memory while simultaneously engaging in eye movements (or another form of bilateral stimulation). This process helps to desensitize the patient to the traumatic event and allows for the reprocessing of the memory, ultimately reducing its emotional impact.

What is EMDR?

Anxiety and Depression

EMDR has also demonstrated its effectiveness in treating anxiety and depression. In fact, a systematic literature review has shown that EMDR can be beneficial for individuals with panic disorder, characterized by recurrent, unexpected panic attacks and persistent worry about additional attacks and their consequences.

Although EMDR is predominantly known for its success in treating trauma-related disorders, it has been found to be useful for anxiety and depression as well.

It is believed that the eye movements that occur during EMDR help to reprocess and reorganize neural networks in the brain, reducing symptoms of these mental health conditions.


EMDR has also shown promise in the treatment of addictions. The reprocessing of traumatic memories and the subsequent reduction in emotional reactivity can positively affect the recovery process for those struggling with substance abuse and dependency.

By addressing the underlying emotional distress related to the addiction, patients can achieve a greater understanding of their motivations and triggers, making it easier to develop healthier coping strategies. EMDR therapy can be an effective adjunct to traditional addiction treatments, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, in promoting long-term recovery and relapse prevention.

In conclusion, EMDR is a versatile and effective therapy, offering individuals with various mental health conditions the opportunity for healing and improvement. Its applications in treating PTSD, anxiety, depression, and addictions demonstrate the profound impact it can have on mental health and overall well-being.

EMDR Effectiveness and Controversies

The effectiveness of EMDR has been explored in various clinical trials and controlled trials. While many studies highlight the positive outcomes of using EMDR, there are some controversies surrounding its use, particularly when compared to other treatments like exposure therapy.

EMDR has been found to be effective in reducing symptoms of PTSD and improving overall well-being in numerous studies. In one such study, researchers observed significant improvements in participants who underwent EMDR treatment compared to a wait-list control group. This supports the evidence that EMDR could effectively ameliorate PTSD symptoms. Additionally, EMDR has shown promise in treating children with self-esteem and behavioral problems, demonstrating improvements in self-esteem and related issues when compared to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) in a randomized controlled trial.

However, some controversies exist regarding the true effectiveness of EMDR. Skepticism about EMDR’s efficacy can be linked to factors such as the proponents of EMDR not having undergone the formal, supervised training by Shapiro’s EMDR Institute, and the failure to perform a thorough review of the available literature. Furthermore, EMDR’s benefits have been debated when compared to other therapeutic approaches such as exposure therapy, which has also proven effective in treating PTSD.

What is EMDR?

It is important to consider the treatment guidelines for EMDR, to ensure that the intervention is being executed with the appropriate methodology and rigor. Research from the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews indicates that EMDR can indeed be effective in treating PTSD, but the methodology of some studies has been criticized, leading to disputes over the actual effectiveness of the technique.

In conclusion, the effectiveness of EMDR is widely supported by various clinical trials and controlled studies, but controversies and debates persist. To accurately measure and validate its effectiveness, future research should focus on more rigorous study designs, comparing EMDR to other established treatments, and adhering to agreed-upon treatment guidelines.

Is EMDR a Form of Hypnosis?

No, EMDR is not a form of hypnosis, although both can be used in therapeutic contexts for treating psychological distress, they are distinct therapeutic methods with different practices and principles.

EMDR is a structured psychotherapy that aims to help clients reduce their distress associated with traumatic memories. As already noted, EMDR therapy involves several phases, including history taking, preparation, assessment, desensitization and reprocessing, installation, body scan, closure, and reevaluation.

In the desensitization and reprocessing phase, the client will be asked to recall traumatic experiences while the therapist facilitates bilateral stimulation, for example through eye movements, tactile sensations, or sounds.

The purpose of the eye movements (or alternative bilateral stimulation) in EMDR is to support the brain’s natural ability to process and heal from traumatic events (based on the Adaptive Information Processing model). Bilateral stimulation is thought to mimic the rapid eye movements we experience during the dream or REM stage of sleep, a time when the natural processing of experiences and emotions occurs.

For example, an individual who has experienced a distressing event such as a car accident might have unprocessed traumatic memories contributing to ongoing distress and fear of driving. Through EMDR, they would be guided to recall aspects of the trauma while performing eye movements (or other bilateral stimulation), with the aim of processing the memory and reducing its impact.

On the other hand, hypnosis is a therapeutic technique that aims to put people into a state of heightened focus and suggestibility. The hypnotic state allows people to explore painful thoughts, feelings, and memories they might have hidden from their conscious minds. In addition, hypnosis enables people to perceive some things differently, such as blocking awareness of pain.

Hypnotherapy often involves guided relaxation, intense concentration, and focused attention to achieve a highly suggestible state, and it can be used to help people cope with a variety of conditions including phobias, addiction, pain, anxiety, and trauma.

Even though EMDR and hypnosis can both be used to help people manage and overcome the effects of traumatic experiences, the practices, principles, and techniques in each approach are unique and distinct. EMDR specifically targets the unprocessed memories of traumatic events through bilateral stimulation and doesn’t put the individual in a state of heightened suggestibility as hypnosis does. Each therapy form can be chosen based on the type of issue, client preference, and professional recommendation.

What is EMDR?

Recognitions and Approvals of EMDR

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) has gained significant recognition and approval from various reputable organizations and institutions. One of the most prominent organizations to endorse EMDR is the World Health Organization (WHO). The WHO has acknowledged EMDR as an effective treatment for adults suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Another notable organization that acknowledges the efficacy of EMDR is the Department of Defense (DoD), which recommends it as a first-line treatment for PTSD in military personnel.

The American Psychological Association (APA) has also recognized the effectiveness of EMDR in treating PTSD. In particular, the APA states that there is strong evidence supporting EMDR as a treatment for PTSD and that it has been found helpful in treating other trauma-related conditions.

In the UK, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) has included EMDR as one of the recommended psychological treatments for PTSD. NICE guidelines emphasize the evidence-based nature and effectiveness of EMDR for individuals with PTSD and encourage its use in clinical practice.

In summary, EMDR has been recognized and approved by various reputable organizations, such as the World Health Organization, the Department of Defense, the American Psychological Association, and the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence. These endorsements highlight the effectiveness of EMDR in treating PTSD and support its integration into clinical practice.


EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) is a psychotherapy treatment proven effective for individuals dealing with traumatic memories and distressing experiences. Through its unique approach, EMDR promotes healing by enabling patients to process and reframe these memories, reducing negative symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other psychological disorders.

What is EMDR?

One of the key benefits of EMDR is its efficiency in treating symptoms related to traumatic memories within a relatively short timeframe. Unlike more traditional psychotherapy approaches, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), EMDR does not require an extensive number of sessions or homework assignments. This allows individuals to experience relief from their symptoms more quickly and efficiently.

EMDR is a well-researched and established psychotherapy intervention that assists individuals in processing traumatic memories and mitigating distressing symptoms. By utilizing bilateral stimulation techniques, EMDR enables clients to reframe and adapt their reactions to unpleasant experiences, fostering an improved state of psychological well-being.

Frequently Asked Questions

How does EMDR therapy work?

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a psychotherapy approach that helps individuals process traumatic memories by facilitating bilateral stimulation, usually through eye movements. The therapy involves recalling the distressing event while focusing on an external stimulus, which allows the brain to reprocess and integrate the traumatic memory, reducing its emotional impact.

Is EMDR effective for anxiety and PTSD?

EMDR is effective in treating a variety of issues, including anxiety and PTSD. It has been extensively researched and has shown positive results in reducing symptoms related to trauma, improving overall psychological functioning, and enhancing emotional resilience. Many people who undergo EMDR therapy report lasting relief from their symptoms and an improved quality of life.

What are the success rates of EMDR?

The success rates of EMDR therapy vary depending on the individual and the specific issue being treated. In general, research has shown that EMDR can be a highly effective treatment option for trauma-related disorders, with participants’ experiences indicating positive outcomes. However, it’s important to remember that success rates can vary, and what works for one person may not work for another.

Why do some consider EMDR controversial?

EMDR has faced some controversy due to skepticism about the effectiveness and necessity of the eye movement component of the therapy. Critics argue that eye movements may not have a significant impact on the treatment process. At the same time, proponents maintain that bilateral stimulation is a crucial part of facilitating the reprocessing of traumatic memories. Despite this controversy, EMDR has been recognized as an evidence-based treatment by multiple organizations and continues to be widely used in therapy settings.

What are the limitations of EMDR therapy?

EMDR therapy, like any other treatment, has limitations. It may not be effective for every individual or situation, and its success can be influenced by factors such as the severity of the trauma, the client’s readiness for change, and the therapist’s skill and experience. Additionally, EMDR may not be suitable for individuals with certain medical conditions or histories, and other treatment options may be more appropriate in some cases.

How can I find an EMDR therapist near me?

To find an EMDR therapist in your area, you can visit the EMDR International Association’s website and use their search function to locate a trained and certified professional. It’s important to research the therapist’s experience, specializations, and approach to ensure a good fit for your needs and preferences.