What is Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR)

Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR) is not a traditional talk-therapy like most other psychotherapies.

EMDR is a psychotherapy that enables people to heal from the symptoms and emotional distress that are the result of disturbing life experiences. It is widely assumed that severe emotional pain requires a long time to heal. EMDR therapy shows that the mind can in fact heal from psychological trauma much as the body recovers from physical trauma.

What is the theoretical basis for EMDR therapy?

Unprocessed memories and feelings are stored in the limbic system of the brain and can be triggered when experiencing events similar to the difficult experiences an individual has gone through. The memory itself is often forgotten but the painful feelings such as panic, anger despair and anxiety are being triggered in the present time. EMDR helps to create connections between the brain’s memory networks enabling the brain to process a painful memory in a natural way.


When you cut your hand, your body works to close the wound. If a foreign object or repeated injury irritates the wound, it festers and causes pain. Once the block is removed, healing resumes. EMDR therapy demonstrates that a similar sequence of events occurs with mental processes. The brain’s information processing system naturally moves toward mental health. If the system is blocked or imbalanced by the impact of a disturbing event, the emotional wound festers and can cause intense suffering. Once the block is removed, healing resumes. Using the detailed protocols and procedures learned in EMDR training sessions, clinicians help clients activate their natural healing processes.

What can I expect with EMDR therapy, i.e., what should/could happen?

Each person is different, but there is a standard eight-phase approach that each clinician should follow. This includes taking a complete history, preparing the client, identifying targets and their components, actively processing the past, present and future aspects, and on-going evaluation.

The processing of a target includes the use of dual stimulation (eye movements, taps, tones) while the client concentrates on various aspects. After each set of movements, the client briefly describes to the clinician what s/he experienced.

At the end of each session, the client should use the techniques s/he has been taught by the clinician in order to leave the session feeling in control and empowered. At the end of EMDR therapy, previously disturbing memories and present situations should no longer be problematic, and new healthy responses should be the norm.

A full description of multiple cases is available in the book Past Your Past: Take Control of Your Life with Self-Help Techniques from EMDR Therapy by Shapiro.

Is EMDR therapy an efficacious treatment for PTSD?

EMDR therapy is recognized as effective trauma treatment and recommended worldwide in the practice guidelines of both domestic and international organisations.

Is EMDR therapy effective in the treatment of phobias, panic disorder, or agoraphobia?

Yes, I sometimes prefer to treat phobias with EMDR because it requires less equipment, takes less time, and is easier to do when the phobia involves something difficult to generate in the therapy room, like an aeroplane flight, a public speaking engagement, or a large animal. In therapy, I will ask you to identify the first time you had an encounter with the phobic object or situation, as well as the worst time, and the most recent time. You will work through each of these situations, and an imagined situation in which you encounter it in the future. After this, you will be given an opportunity to test the resolution by engaging with the phobic object outside of the session to ensure that your phobia is resolved.

Is EMDR therapy a one-session cure?

No. Two studies (Lee, Gavriel, Drummond, Richards, & Greenwald, 2002; Rothbaum, 1997) have indicated an elimination of diagnosis of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in 83-90% of civilian participants after four to seven sessions. Other studies using participants with PTSD (e.g. Ironson, Freund, Strauss, & Williams, 2002; Scheck, Schaeffer, & Gillette, 1998; S. A. Wilson, Becker, & Tinker, 1995) have found significant decreases in a wide range of symptoms after three-four sessions. The only randomized study (Carlson, Chemtob, Rusnak, Hedlund, & Muraoka, 1998) of combat veterans to address the multiple traumas of this population reported that 12 sessions of treatment resulted in a 77% elimination of PTSD. Clients with multiple traumas and/or complex histories of childhood abuse, neglect, and poor attachment may require more extensive therapy, including substantial preparatory work in phase two of EMDR (Korn & Leeds, 2002; Maxfield & Hyer, 2002; Shapiro, 2001, 2018).

How many EMDR sessions will it take to get results?

The type of problem, severity and amount of trauma, and life circumstances are factors that may affect how many treatment sessions would be required. In my practice, clients may choose to use only EMDR as a primary source of treatment, or to integrate EMDR into their regular sessions of talk therapy.

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