Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR)


What is EMDR?

Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a psychotherapy approach that has been used to help people process and overcome traumatic experiences. (EMDR) was developed by Francine Shapiro, an American psychologist, in 1987.

According to Shapiro, certain eye movements reduced the intensity of disturbing thoughts and emotions. This observation led her to explore the potential therapeutic benefits of intentionally incorporating bilateral stimulation, such as side-to-side eye movements, into the treatment of traumatic memories.

Shapiro initially called this approach “Eye Movement Desensitisation” and later expanded it to “Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing” to reflect the broader cognitive and emotional processing during the therapy. 

What Can EMDR Help With?

EMDR therapy has been found to be effective in treating a range of psychological conditions, primarily those stemming from distressing or traumatic experiences. Some of the conditions EMDR can help with include:

How Does EMDR Therapy Work?

The process is thought to mimic the rapid eye movement (REM) sleep phase, where memory processing and consolidation occur. As the individual engages in bilateral stimulation while focusing on the distressing memory, the brain’s information processing system is believed to become activated. This activation enables the individual to access and reprocess the traumatic memory in a new, less distressing way.

What Happens During an EMDR Session?

During an EMDR session, the therapist guides the individual through bilateral stimulation, typically involving moving the eyes from side to side while focusing on a specific traumatic memory or distressing thought. This bilateral stimulation can also be achieved through other means, such as hand tapping or auditory tones. An EMDR light bar or EMDR tappers (tactile bilateral stimulation devices) can also be used during a face-to-face EMDR session. For online EMDR therapy, therapists use websites such as Bilateral Base

What are the Eight Phases of EMDR?

EMDR therapy typically involves eight phases, each designed to systematically address different aspects of the client’s experience and facilitate the processing of traumatic memories. Here’s an overview of each phase:

  1. History Taking and Treatment Planning: In this phase, the therapist gathers information about the client’s history, including their trauma history, current symptoms, and any relevant psychological or medical issues. The therapist and the client develop a treatment plan that outlines the specific targets for processing during EMDR sessions.
  2. Preparation: The therapist educates the client about EMDR therapy, including its theoretical basis and procedures. The client learns coping skills and relaxation techniques to manage distress during the processing of traumatic memories. Establishing a trusting therapeutic relationship is also a key focus of this phase.
  3. Assessment: During this phase, the therapist works with the client to identify specific memories, images, beliefs, and emotions related to the target traumatic event or events. The client is guided to identify the most disturbing image linked to this memory. The therapist asks the client to rate the intensity of these elements to establish a baseline for tracking progress.
  4. Desensitisation: This phase involves the actual processing of traumatic memories using bilateral stimulation, which may include the client’s eye movements, taps, or auditory tones. The client recalls the target memory while simultaneously focusing on the bilateral stimulation, allowing the memory to become less distressing over time.
  5. Installation: Once the distress associated with the target memory has been significantly reduced, the therapist helps the client reinforce positive beliefs and emotions to replace any negative beliefs or emotions previously associated with the memory. This phase aims to strengthen the client’s adaptive coping mechanisms and self-esteem.
  6. Body Scan: In this phase, the therapist guides the client in noticing any residual tension or physical sensations associated with the processed memory. 
  7. Closure: At the end of each session, the therapist ensures that the client feels grounded and stable before concluding. This may involve relaxation exercises or other techniques to help the client regain equilibrium. The therapist also discusses any self-care strategies the client can use between sessions.
  8. Reevaluation: In subsequent sessions, the therapist reassesses the client’s progress and identifies any additional targets that may need to be addressed. The client and therapist continue to work collaboratively to process unresolved memories and address any new issues that arise during treatment.

EMDR is an evidence-based therapy (used by the NHS). EMDR can be used for all age groups, including children. Although this treatment is best known for its use in treating PTSD, ongoing research shows it can treat many other conditions.