What is EMDR?

EMDR, or Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, is a therapy used to treat PTSD and other trauma-related symptoms and disorders. This could include anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and much more. Check out this short animation for a quick overview of EMDR:

Click here for a more detailed explanation.


What Does EMDR Look Like in Session?

First, we will talk about your background, past experiences, and how you deal with stress.

We will do “resourcing,” which is a fancy way of saying we will help you develop solid coping skills for the processing you will do in and out of session. You probably already have some coping mechanisms, so we will strengthen those and add some new ones so you can ground yourself when you’re feeling triggered or overwhelmed.

Next, we will pick a “target”: a single memory that is linked to a negative belief you carry. The target may be what you came in for or it may be something you haven’t thought about in a while but affects you more than you consciously realize. We will pick an image that represents the worst part of the memory, and take note of the emotions and bodily sensations it brings up. Trauma is often stored in the body, mimicking the state your body was in when you experienced it, so we need to access and release the physical responses to the thought or memory.

The next step involves “bilateral stimulation” a phrase that encompasses a range of activities that will activate the left and right hemispheres of your brain in succession (back and forth). This helps you access BOTH sides of your brain, which means your logical and creative skills can work in concert. Bilateral stimulation puts you in a state of mind that is both activated and relaxed, allowing you to process disturbing material while still feeling safe.

Bilateral stimulation may be as simple as having you follow an object (generally, either the therapist’s fingers or a wand with a brightly-colored tip) back and forth along your line of vision. This technique can also be done with “tappers,” which are little plastic discs you can hold or place on opposite sides of your body (e.g. on the sides of your thighs) that vibrate back and forth. Headphones with tones that alternate in each ear can either work with the tappers or as a standalone alternative. Your therapist may have a preference for one particular technique, or she may let you try the different types of stimulation to see which you prefer. I usually start with the wand, then move to the tappers and headphones if a client is uncomfortable with the eye movements. Some people find eye movements to be too intense; they can create feelings of dizziness and disorientation, which we don’t want!

As you process the disturbing memory and belief, you will likely feel your focus shifting. You may process multiple moments within the trauma, or you may notice different parts of it. You will likely notice your body experiencing different sensations associated with the trauma. If the therapy becomes too intense or activating, your therapist will have ways of bringing you back down to a level of activation you can handle.

Photo by Laurin Guadiana

Photo by Laurin Guadiana

How Does EMDR Work?

We don’t know exactly how EMDR works. The mechanism may be similar to what happens in the REM stage of sleep, where your brain is relaxed and creative and able to solve problems differently. EMDR may access that same process in a pointed and focused way, unlike the disorganized nature of dreams. On their website, EMDRIA (the official EMDR association) states: “EMDR can be thought of as a physiologically based therapy that helps a person see disturbing material in a new and less distressing way.” Click here for the full explanation.

In the end, EMDR won’t change who you are or erase the memory altogether. Instead, the results will allow you to reflect upon the initial trauma, hold the truth that it was unpleasant and disturbing, but you won’t have the physical activation you did before processing it via EMDR. This lack of activation frees you from the lasting effects of the trauma, letting you see the experience clearly and learn from it, without allowing it to control you or affect you as it once did.

Check out this video for further explanation of the therapy. Included are some personal stories from people who have benefited from EMDR.


I hope this information is helpful. Please let me know via the comments or email if you have further questions about EMDR therapy or would like to schedule a consultation or appointment to try EMDR yourself.



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