What is EMDR Therapy?

EMDR is a type of therapy that has become more prevalent in recent years, but what does this type of therapy look like, and who does it benefit?


EMDR is an acronym for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. This means that traumatic memories are reprocessed in the brain through bilateral stimulation, often using eye movements. This process is used to target a specific memory and change the way that it is stored in the brain, with the goal of reducing the memory’s impact on someone’s emotions and well-being.


What does an EMDR session look like? EMDR shares some similarities with other types of therapy in that the first sessions will involve creating a trusting relationship with your counsellor and exploring your reasons for coming to therapy. Depending on your experiences and the therapist’s approach, the number of sessions may vary. Although there will be differences for each therapist’s process, you might generally expect the following aspects of EMDR therapy:

  • History-Taking: This may look similar to other types of therapy as you and your therapist will discuss anything from your past that is affecting you and what those current symptoms are.

  • Preparation: You and your therapist will explore and practice strategies to manage stress, anxiety, and any triggers you may experience. You will learn coping and relaxation techniques that could include breathing, meditation, progressive muscle relaxation, or container work.

  • Assessment: You will work with your therapist to identify a target memory and some of the related images, thoughts, beliefs, emotions, or body sensations that connect to the memory.

  • Desensitization: While you focus on your target memory, your therapist will guide you through some bilateral stimulation sets using eye movements, tapping, or sounds. Between sets, you and your therapist might discuss what came up for you and practice some coping strategies and mind clearing.

  • Installation: You will work with your therapist to focus on a positive belief/thought and strengthen its truth or power, and you may do more stimulation sets.

  • Body Scan: You will scan your body while focusing on the positive belief and target memory and notice any sensations that come up. You may go through some additional sets to manage any residual distress.

  • Closure: This may look like grounding techniques, discussing your progress, positive steps, and how to continue these things outside of the therapy session.

  • Re-evaluation: This includes checking-in at the beginning of each session and exploring how the treatment and coping techniques are going. You may also re-evaluate other memories that may benefit from desensitization.

EMDR can differ from other types of therapy because it does not require in-depth discussions where all the details of a traumatic experience have to be explored. Some people find this a relief as talking about their experiences in detail can feel triggering or even re-traumatizing in certain situations. Once you have identified the target memory, you do not need to discuss any further details if you do not wish to.

Research is suggesting that EMDR can be effective for people with various mental health challenges. EMDR is commonly used for traumatic memories or those with PTSD, but has also been used for panic disorder, depression, anxiety, and chronic pain, among other concerns. This therapy is considered emerging compared to some other forms of therapy, so there is continued research being done on EMDR and how the bilateral stimulation functions. Discuss the risks and benefits of EMDR with a trained therapist (they need specific training to practice this type of therapy) if you are interested in it.


References and Further Reading


American Psychological Association (2017, July 31). Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy. https://www.apa.org/ptsd-guideline/treatments/eye-movement-reprocessing


EMDR International Association (n.d.). About EMDR therapy. https://www.emdria.org/about-emdr-therapy/


EMDR Institute (n.d.). What is EMDR? https://www.emdr.com/what-is-emdr/


Star, K. (2022, November 27). What is EMDR therapy? Verywell Mind. https://www.verywellmind.com/emdr-for-panic-disorder-2584292

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