What is EMDR Therapy?

EMDR Therapy is an empirically validated psychotherapy approach to treat trauma, as well as many other conditions and symptoms. Traumatic events, and the unprocessed memories associated with them, can be the cause of psychological distress and physical problems such as anxiety disorders, depression, eating disorders  especially anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa and medically unexplained symptoms. Rigorous controlled trials1 show that EMDR Therapy reduces or eliminates the distressing effects of these events and their memory associations, even in people with no previous mental health problem.

The theory behind EMDR is that traumatic experiences aren’t properly processed in the brain at the time of the event. This is why they continue to distress us long after the actual event, as if it were happening again. EMDR allows the brain to process those memories more adaptively, thereby eliminating the negative associations and restoring the body’s physiological balance.

In the first phase of EMDR, called assessment, your therapist will help you identify negative beliefs and disturbing images, emotions and body sensations that are connected to a specific memory. Your therapist will also help you identify positive self-beliefs that you would like to believe going forward. During this initial phase, you and your therapist may decide that the memory does not need to be fully reprocessed.

During the second phase, reprocessing, your therapist will guide you to recall the memory while engaging in a set of bilateral stimulation, which could be eye movements, tappers or alternating sounds. During this period, you will focus on the target image while paying attention to your thoughts and feelings. Your therapist will also ask you to report on any new sensations you are feeling in your body, particularly if there is any tension or discomfort.

Your therapist will continue to lead you through a series of brief sets of bilateral stimulation until you report that the memory no longer distresses you. Then you move to the third and final phase, installation, where your therapist will have you strengthen the preferred positive cognition identified in the fourth phase.

At the end of this last stage, you will have your therapist ask you to think about the targeted memory again and notice any negative sensations in your body. You will then be asked to rate the intensity of those sensations, with 0 being no feelings and 10 being extreme distress. You will then repeat the entire procedure with a different targeted memory until you report that no negative sensations are being felt. Typically, a person will complete the reprocessing of a single trauma within three sessions, but if you require more, your therapist will monitor your progress and ensure that your symptoms are consistently decreasing. You will also be taught techniques for maintaining emotional balance between sessions. This is essential, as a recent study1 showed that people who did not complete the treatment were more likely to relapse into symptoms. Further, it was found that reprocessing a trauma is more effective when it is completed as soon as possible.