EMDR Therapists Understand Trauma

By: Sarah Fader

Updated June 05, 2020

Medically Reviewed By: Lauren Guilbeault

What Is EMDR?

Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR) Therapy is a technique that can help people recover from trauma. It's incredibly useful in treating trauma and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). During EMDR therapy sessions, the therapist will help a client release traumatic experiences using eye movements. It'll trigger the client in brief sessions or "bites" as they recall their traumatic events, but they aren't as emotionally distressed as they usually would be. It works because the client is distracted by the therapist using their hands to guide the client's eyes in different directions. This method allows the client to be exposed to traumatic memories without experiencing a strong reaction because they're distracted by their vision being drawn in different directions, and as a result, it lessens the impact that the trauma has on an individual.

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What To Expect

EMDR sessions can last anywhere from 60-90 minutes. The therapist moves their fingers in front of a client's face, and the client follows the therapist's movements with their eyes as they recall a traumatic incident. They think about the physical feelings that go along with this trauma as they follow the fingers of their therapist. In an EMDR session, your therapist will guide you on a meditation of a certain kind. You'll start by thinking about the traumatic event, but it'll lead down to various memories. Some therapists might use tapping as a technique in EMDR, and they might also use music as an alternative. EMDR therapy exists in eight phases. The bilateral stimulation or eye movements are part of the first session, and after that first session, the clinician decides what to target next.

EMDR developed because a Harvard researcher was researching rapid eye movement and sleep. They noticed that sensations would arise and that disturbing memories would occur during rapid eye movement. When EMDR works, the painful memories become less and less as the patient works through them by following the therapist's fingers with their eyes. Someone could come in for their initial session entirely frightened of being assaulted and might feel extreme guilt, shame, and fear. After treatment, they learn to accept that the event happened and don't experience as many symptoms after they've been strengthened and empowered through EMDR therapy. The wounds of trauma never heal, but they get less and less over time. Clients can work through traumatic events once the memories have less power over them. They're able to process these memories, sit with them, and move through them.

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Phases Of EMDR Treatment

EMDR focuses on three different periods in time: the past, the present, and the future. The first part of treatment focuses on the past, and it helps the client to bring up their memories in treatment. In phase one, the therapist takes a patient's history and talks about their memories. They emphasize one particular memory to work on. Sometimes, an EMDR therapist will focus on a clients childhood first and then move into adulthood, depending on the trauma that the individual experienced. In phase two of EMDR treatment, the therapist helps their client deal with handling the emotional distress that they feel during the memories. The client will experience uncomfortable imagery and will work on staying grounded as they sit with the imagery and thoughts that arise. In phases 3-6, there's a target that the client and therapist agree on, and three things happen: there's a visual image that relates to the memory, a negative image of the person's self, and the body of the image that corresponds to that belief. After that, the therapist asks a client to relay a positive feeling about themselves to override the negative thinking, but the client will first focus on the negative thoughts that they have about themselves.

As they focus on these thoughts, they also have bilateral stimulation, meaning that they're watching the therapist's fingers move back and forth. After the stimulus happens, a client tells the therapist what they saw and what came up for them during the stimulation. The therapist will then interpret the images that came up for the client and what that imagery or those memories mean. In phase seven of EMDR therapy, the therapist asks a to client keep track of what happens during their week and express how or if they're able to use exercises to calm themselves down. In phase eight, the therapist and the client examine the events that have happened in the past that causes the client distress and how the client can respond in the future. In terms of how long the treatment takes, it depends on the individual and how distressed they are by their memories when they enter treatment as well as their trajectory as they move through treatment. Like most other forms of therapy, the overall length of treatment will vary from person to person.


When a person is in EMDR our therapy, they will be visualizing traumatic events. The therapist will tell them to focus on particular traumatic events and zero in on one moment that impacted them. They will imagine those moments as the therapist takes their two fingers and move them back-and-forth. Then they will close their eyes and report to the therapist what they see. The images that they envision may not make sense to them. They may seem strange or unrelated to the trauma. But they are related because the person is articulating what is in their memory bank. They are following the traumatic events and everything related to it. Their unconscious forces at work, and that's why trauma is so sneaky. It lives inside a person's brain and makes a Home for itself. So the person will talk to their therapist about what they see with their eyes closed and try to stay in the moment. No image is wrong. During the visualization process, the person may feel anxious, and their heart might race. That's when their therapist will tell them to go to a safe place in their mind. They might imagine their partner holding them, or being with one of their children. A safe place can bring a person back from feeling in a state a fight or flight to a state of grounding.

Internal Family Systems And EMDR

There is an exercise in internal family systems therapy that is related to EMDR. It involves the therapist telling the client to imagine themselves as a child. They envision sitting with the younger version of themselves and talking to them. The client will ask the child what they need from them. It's the client's turn to give the younger version of themselves what they need emotionally. We are all broken in some way inside and during EMDR therapy you have the chance to address the pieces of yourself that need healing. And the inner child work is a powerful way to connect with yourself and be reunited with that part. Healing does come from within, and it's important to remember that there are times during this exercise that will be painful. As you begin to address your pain, you will start to feel less sadness or anxiety due to the trauma you experienced. Eventually, you'll feel more whole and one with yourself.

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How Effective Is EMDR?

Many people have said that EMDR is effective in treating PTSD. The Department of Veterans Affairs strongly encourages and recommends this form of treatment for PTSD. A study of 22 individuals indicated that EMDR therapy helps 77% of people who seek it to treat PTSD. In that study, their delusions, anxiety, and depression all improved after moving through EMDR therapy. EMDR is shown to be effective long-term, and it has been looked at in over 30 studies. People who have been suffering from severe trauma have benefited from EMD our sessions. It is an effective type of treatment for people that want to overcome traumatizing events that have happened to them. It's unique because it's not talking about your childhood or analyzing things that happened to you that are unrelated to the trauma. It focuses on the traumatic event and being able to handle exposure to it in small doses.

Seeking Help For Trauma In Therapy

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Trauma has a way of holding people back. But you don't have to let that happen. EMD is one of the most effective forms of therapy for trauma. You don't have to suffer anymore. It's time to seek the help of mental health professionals who can help you through these painful memories. Whether you're looking for EMDR specifically or another method of therapy to treat trauma, it's imperative to find help for your experiences. You don't have to suffer alone. There are mental health providers out there that care and can help you move through your trauma. You can work with a therapist online here at BetterHelp, or you can see someone in your local area. No matter what mode of treatment you choose, know that there's hope for you to overcome your trauma and start to heal.


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