What Is EMDR? Therapy Definition

Updated September 8, 2022 by BetterHelp Editorial Team

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EMDR Meaning & Therapy Goals

EMDR therapy was developed by Francine Shapiro. It started in 1988 and has since become a popular form of mental health treatment and trauma therapy. EMDR, or Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, helps people who have experienced severe trauma in their lives. Traumatic events have a way of sticking with people. It's difficult to function when you're experiencing flashbacks to your trauma. It can be disruptive to your daily routine. During EMDR therapy, the client has an opportunity to confront their trauma in a safe environment. The individual recalls upsetting or distressing images while the therapist moves their finger back and forth in front of the client's eyes to encourage rapid eye movement stimulation. This side-by-side rapid eye movement of EMDR therapy is a type of bilateral stimulation. Another way that EMDR therapy is conducted is through hand tapping. The therapist guides the client to tap places on their body that stimulate brain activity while discussing their traumatic experiences. EMDR therapy helps people with trauma and can treat Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. EMDR therapy uses eye movements and helps the person recall the different memories they have surrounding trauma to desensitize themselves to these distressing memories, hence the name Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing.

The EMDR Therapy Process Explained: EMDR Bilateral Stimulation & The EMDR Therapy Phases

The way Eye Movement Desensitization & Reprocessing therapy works is relatively straightforward. The client is asked to recall their traumatic experience. The therapist asks the person to tap or move their eyes while recalling said traumatic memories. EMDR therapy helps the mind heal from psychological trauma as well as the body. If you think about it as a wound, trauma injures the body, and the mind and EMDR therapy focuses directly on this to help heal that gash on both levels. Traumatic stress studies and statistics show that it works for posttraumatic stress disorder and recovering from other instances of trauma. According to Kaiser Permanente (a healthcare company), 100% of trauma victims and 77% of people that experience complex trauma benefited from EMDR therapy. It also is a helpful tool in aiding multiple trauma victims such as war veterans and soldiers at large.

When you learn about EMDR therapy, you often hear the term bilateral stimulation. Which is a core component of how EMDR works. What that means is the therapist helps a client stimulate both parts of their brain. The way this is accomplished is the client tracks different stimuli with their eyes. For example, an EMDR therapist moves their finger back and forth while the client follows it to stimulate different parts of the mind. Tapping is another example of bilateral stimulation. The therapist shows the client where to tap on their body to stimulate their brain. Some therapists use light sources as another external stimulus to help the client engage in bilateral stimulation. The individual in treatment will follow the light back-and-forth with their eyes to engage different brain hemispheres. Bilateral stimulation is a significant part of the phases of EMDR therapy.

Eight Phases

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing therapy has eight phases. When treating trauma, an individual must be ready to move from one phase to the next. People need to understand when they engage in EMDR counseling/therapy, it is an intense process. The person has to be ready to confront their trauma. It's important to note that a therapist will spend a long time gaining background information on the client's traumatic experience before using bilateral stimulation and confronting the trauma.

Here are the different stages of this treatment. You can see the gradual development of EMDR treatment and how these stages help individuals heal from trauma.

Phase 1

Obtaining Client History And Treatment Planning. Phase one can take one to two therapy sessions, and it involves the client stating what happened to them that created their trauma. They discuss what situations in their life caused them emotional distress or to experience flashbacks. The individual also identifies what coping skills they need to learn to begin to feel better. During this phase, you are identifying the problem, which is the traumatic memory, and finding solutions.

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Phase 2

Preparation. Phase two can take anywhere from one to four sessions and can be a more involved process for people who have severe or complex trauma. During phase two, the therapist prepares the client to engage in bilateral stimulation, such that they don't have to talk about their disturbing memories in detail. However, they will talk about what they experienced generally and what they feel about it now. During phase two, the client discusses how the trauma made them feel prepared for the intensity of phase three.

Phase 3

Assessment. During the third phase, the client selects a specific memory or mental picture to target during the EMDR therapy treatment. Then the client is asked to choose a statement or a negative connotation that they have about their trauma and emotional distress. For example, one negative belief, mantra, or association could be, "It was my fault," or "I'm a bad person." Then the client chooses a positive statement to replace or reframe these negative beliefs and statements, such as, "I don't have control over what happened to me, but I can heal," or "I did the best that I could." During phase three, the therapist asks the client on a scale of 1-7 how much they believe the statement. One means that the statement is false, and seven means it feels entirely true. In this way, one identifies how much they believe the negative statement. The other thing that happens during the EMDR therapy assessment is the client talks about the emotions that accompany the trauma and the belief system.

Additionally, they rate their beliefs using subjective units of disturbance (or SUD) from 0-10. 0 meaning it doesn't disturb you at all, and ten meaning it's the worst thing you've ever experienced. Now you are dealing with reprocessing and changing the negative cognition you’re struggling with. If you're talking about a single traumatic event, it takes around three sessions of EMDR practice to make headway. However, it can take longer with a complex traumatic situation.

Phase 4

Desensitization. During this phase, the client focuses on their distressing emotion and how they feel, and the therapist measures the SUD. The therapist helps the client, utilizing the different eye movements or tapping techniques while starting with the target memory and moving forward from there.

Phase 5

Installation. During installation, it's time to strengthen the positive belief by doing away with the negative sentiment regarding the targeted memory and replacing it with an affirmative one. The therapist aims to instill in the client the validity of cognition or VOC. So, the goal is to help the person get to a level of truth, keeping in mind that 0 = I don't believe it at all, and 7 = I believe it is entirely true. One thing to note about EMDR therapy is that one cannot completely and utterly erase negative thoughts and memories. Still, you can help yourself feel better, and you can begin to change your relationship to specific ideas or memories.

Phase 6

Body Scan. After the therapist helps the client understand the positive way of thinking about the situation, they focus on how the traumatic event affects the body. It's interesting because trauma embeds itself in a person's physical being sometimes without the person affected being consciously aware of its presence. Through the body scan, the therapist helps their client understand where in the body they are feeling trauma and how to work through those physical sensations.

Phase 7

Closure. Following the scanning of body sensations, during phase seven of the EMDR practice, the client gets back to a state of grounding. The therapist continues to use bilateral stimulation, i.e., the back and forth eye movements, and ends the session by taking the client out of the memory, thereby helping them come back to a sense of stasis.

Phase 8

Reevaluation. During reevaluation, the client is asked to reassess how traumatic the memory is to them after using the bilateral stimulation or hand tapping. They will tell their therapist how much their thoughts have changed about it.

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The EMDR Therapy Benefits

According to establishments such as the American Psychiatric Association, U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs and the World Health Organization, anybody who has experienced a traumatic event or complex trauma can potentially benefit from EMDR counseling. EMDR is a process that helps people let go of negative thoughts and experiences surrounding their trauma and get to a place of acceptance and positive belief.

Is EMDR And EMDR Therapy An Emotional Process?

EMDR counseling can be intense, so it is important to use the beginning phases, as mentioned above. In this way, the therapist may prepare the client accordingly to know what they are getting into. The client must be ready psychologically to process the memories and feelings that EMDR counseling sessions can elicit to not get themselves in over their head.

The EMDR Therapy Conclusion: Preparing For EMDR Therapy - How Can I Find Out More About EMDR Therapy?

During the early stage of EMDR practice, It's crucial to talk to your therapist about your trauma to understand whether or not EMDR counseling is an appropriate form of treatment for you. You can learn more about EMDR counseling by consulting with a licensed mental health professional and deciding if you're ready to engage in this potentially effective treatment process.

You can read about EMDR counseling online and talk to a licensed mental health professional about it. If you have experienced significant trauma, EMDR counseling could be right for you.

Before you make that decision, it's important you research this form of treatment and talk to the mental health provider about it. You don't want to jump into this type of trauma treatment without knowing the facts.

Consider meeting with an online mental health professional and discussing the best trauma treatment for you presently and whether EMDR therapy might be right for you. BetterHelp has a great network of therapists, and you can learn more about online therapy if you click here.


Some commonly asked questions on this topic include the following.

What happens during EMDR?

During electromagnet desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy, talk therapy is combined with an adaptive information processing model to light up both sides of a patient’s brain during therapy. This method is done through body sensations triggered by buzzers, light movement, or other stimuli.

In the first phase, history taking is done. In this process, the client reports painful events, traumatic past events, or negative emotions that they would like to heal. Based on the client’s readiness and emotional state, the next session and second phase of treatment will go into the EMDR session.

To practice EMDR, the therapist ensures that both sides of the client’s brain are stimulated at the same time while they discuss distressing events. Originally designed to help clients with PTSD, this therapy and its treatment effects are much more effective in remembering lost memories and creating an adaptive resolution in patients with trauma or a disturbing event that must be processed.

In each next session, the client will continue to process distress related to trauma or distressing events. They may discuss a negative thought associated with these traumas. The basic principles of EMDR are to heal past distress and cure low self-esteem associated with it.

The Department of Defense, Veteran’s Association, and Guilford Press in New York approve of EMDR as a treatment for PTSD, especially in the case of combat veterans.

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