Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) refers to an interactive psychotherapy technique used to relieve psychological stress.
According to the theory behind the approach, traumatic and painful memories can cause post-traumatic stress when you don’t process them completely. Then, when sights, sounds, words, or smells trigger those unprocessed memories, you re-experience them.
This re-experiencing leads to the emotional distress and other symptoms recognized as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
EMDR aims to reduce symptoms of trauma by changing how your memories are stored in your brain. In a nutshell, an EMDR therapist does this by leading you through a series of bilateral (side-to-side) eye movements as you recall traumatic or triggering experiences in small segments, until those memories no longer cause distress.
While originally developed to treat trauma and PTSD, EMDR may also help relieve symptoms of other mental health concerns, especially those intertwined with past trauma.
You might feel a little skeptical of the idea that making eye movements when thinking about a traumatic experience can somehow help ease painful memories.
While experts aren’t entirely certain exactly why the approach works, some believe it’s effective because recalling distressing events may feel less emotionally upsetting when you aren’t giving those memories your full attention.
To put it another way, the bilateral stimulation (BLS) used in EMDR gives you something to focus on as you access painful memories and unwanted thoughts.
This helps dim the intensity of your memory, allowing you space to process it without an overwhelming psychological response.
What the research says
Since the introduction of EMDR in 1987, a number of studies have found support for its effectiveness.
- can help relieve emotional distress after adverse experiences
- may work more quickly and effectively than trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
- may help ease somatic symptoms, like pain or muscle tension
Research findings have led the American Psychological Association to conditionally recommend EMDR for the treatment of PTSD. A conditional recommendation means that, while research suggests positive treatment outcomes, there’s not yet enough evidence to recommend it to everyone across the board.
The Department of Veterans Affairs also recommends EMDR as one primary option for treating PTSD.
Here’s a closer look at what research has to say about EMDR’s effectiveness:
- For depression. A
2015 studyof 32 people receiving inpatient care for depression found that EMDR therapy showed promise as a treatment: 68 percent of those receiving EMDR showed full remission after treatment. After EMDR, they noted more improvements in depression symptoms overall, plus fewer relapses and depression-related concerns at follow-up over a year later.
- For children. A 2012 summary of research studies suggested EMDR may have benefit for treating a single instance of trauma in children. While EMDR also shows promise as a treatment for repeated trauma, like abuse, experts agree on the need for more research.
- For panic disorder. A 2017 study involving 84 people with panic disorder suggested EMDR is just as effective at treating panic disorder symptoms as CBT.
- After a stressful event requiring ER treatment. A
2018 studyfound that a single 1-hour session of EMDR appeared to help prevent post concussion-like symptoms in patients who received emergency room care after a stressful event.
- For refugees with PTSD. A
small 2018 studyexplored the benefits of EMDR for Syrian refugees with PTSD. Of the 18 participants who received EMDR in a group therapy intervention, just over 61 percent no longer met criteria for a PTSD diagnosis afterward. Those who received EMDR also reported fewer symptoms of depression.
- For psychosis. According to a
2020 reviewof six studies, EMDR may help treat psychosis with no adverse effects. In all six studies, EMDR helped decrease delusions and negative symptoms, and participants reported less use of medication and mental health services. Some participants also noticed a decrease in hallucinations and paranoia. The review authors noted the need for larger trials to support these benefits.
EMDR is generally recommended for people living with overwhelming traumatic memories and symptoms of PTSD. You may find it particularly helpful if you have a hard time sharing the trauma you’ve experienced with others, including therapists.
To date, limited evidence supports the effectiveness of EMDR for other mental health conditions, but some mental health professionals may also recommend it to treat:
For the most part, EMDR appears to be a safe intervention for a range of mental health symptoms, but future research may offer more conclusive support for its effectiveness.
EMDR therapy is broken down into eight phases, so you’ll need to attend multiple sessions. Treatment usually consists of anywhere from 6 to 12 sessions, but more sessions may be needed
Phase 1: History and treatment planning
Your therapist will first review your symptoms and health history to get a better understanding of where you are in the treatment process.
This evaluation phase also includes briefly talking about your trauma and identifying potential memories to address.
Phase 2: Preparation
Your therapist will teach you a few different techniques to help manage and cope with the emotional or psychological stress you’re experiencing, or uncomfortable feelings that might come up during treatment. This is called resourcing.
Phase 3: Assessment
During the third phase of EMDR treatment, your therapist will guide you through the process of selecting a specific memory to target, along with any relevant aspects of that memory, such as:
- painful emotions or physical sensations
- intrusive thoughts or images
- distressing or unwanted self-beliefs
Phases 4–7: Treatment
Your therapist will then begin using EMDR therapy techniques to address the targeted memories. This happens in four stages:
- Desensitization. You’ll focus on that negative thought, memory, or image. At the same time, you’ll be guided through bilateral stimulation (BLS), which might involve making specific eye movements, tapping, audio tones, or blinking lights. Then, you’ll let your mind go blank and notice any thoughts and feelings that come up spontaneously. After you identify these thoughts, your therapist may have you refocus on that traumatic memory or move on to another, if that memory no longer triggers unwanted emotions.
- Installation. You’ll “install” a positive self-belief or image to replace the unwanted one you identified in phase 3. You’ll focus on this belief through another repetition of BLS.
- Body scan. Your therapist will ask if the targeted memory prompts any uncomfortable physical pain or sensations. If it does, they’ll lead you through another repetition of BLS.
- Closure. After each session, your therapist will explore your progress and suggest relaxation techniques and other coping strategies that can help you maintain improvements.
Phase 8: Re-evaluation
During the re-evaluation phase, which begins the next session, your therapist will ask about the memories and feelings you addressed in the previous session.
If those memories still cause distress, they might continue targeting them. If not, they’ll likely suggest moving on to new targets.
While experts generally recognize EMDR as a safe and effective approach with few unwanted effects, you could potentially experience a few side effects, including:
- vivid, realistic dreams
- heightened sensitivity to physical sensations or emotions
EMDR can also take several sessions to work, though you could notice some improvement after your first session.
You might find the beginning of therapy triggers some emotional distress and discomfort, especially if you’re just starting to deal with traumatic events.
But since EMDR doesn’t require you to talk about the trauma at length or spend extensive time thinking about it, it may feel less overwhelming than other approaches used to treat trauma.
If you do become distressed during treatment, your therapist will help you return to the present before shifting to another traumatic memory. Remember, too, that you’ll also learn relaxation and mindfulness strategies before you get started, and these techniques can help you manage those unwanted emotions.
Finding a therapist
Ready to try EMDR? Keeping the following tips in mind can help you find the right professional.
Look for an EMDR-trained clinician
Therapists who want to offer EMDR can complete an approved training to become EMDR trained clinicians. This is not the same as the EMDR certification, which requires further education and training. Still, EMDR trained clinicians are fully qualified to offer EMDR.
Remember, it’s not at all rude to ask potential therapists about the training they’ve completed before deciding to work with them.
To start your search for an EMDR-trained therapist, visit:
You can also find therapists offering EMDR in general therapist directories.
Find a therapist who treats your specific symptoms
Plenty of therapists who offer EMDR specialize in treating trauma-related mental health symptoms, but some may choose to work only with people experiencing PTSD.
If you’d like to try EMDR for another mental health concern, such as panic disorder or symptoms of psychosis, it’s always worth asking potential therapists what experience they have treating that concern.
If they don’t have experience treating your symptoms, they might even be able to recommend a therapist who’s a better fit.
Don’t discount online therapy
If you prefer to connect with a therapist online but want to try EMDR, know that emerging research suggests it may still be effective in a teletherapy format.