EMDR: The basics

EMDR: The basics2023-11-04T17:32:35+00:00

EMDR is best known for treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and it can also help with a range of mental health conditions in people of all ages.

Read some frequently asked questions below (there are more questions for professionals answered here). Alternatively you can watch a selection of videos that also give a very good introduction to the therapy.

What is EMDR?2023-10-19T18:38:13+01:00

EMDR, or Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, is a form of psychotherapy that has proven highly effective in treating individuals struggling with the aftermath of trauma, particularly post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Developed by Francine Shapiro in the late 1980s, EMDR has since gained widespread recognition and has been endorsed by organisations such as the American Psychological Association and the World Health Organization.

The core premise of EMDR lies in the idea that traumatic experiences can lead to the maladaptive encoding of memories. In simple terms, these memories get ‘stuck’ in the brain, causing distressing symptoms to persist long after the event has occurred. This is particularly true for individuals who have experienced significant or repeated traumas.

The therapy derives its name from the initial focus on eye movements as a form of bilateral stimulation. However, it’s important to note that various other forms of bilateral stimulation, such as hand taps or auditory tones, are also employed based on the individual’s preference and comfort.

EMDR is notably effective due to its ability to access and reprocess traumatic memories. This is believed to occur through a mechanism called “memory reconsolidation,” wherein the brain revisits and reorganises traumatic memories in a way that reduces their emotional intensity.

How does EMDR work?2023-06-25T14:56:12+01:00

When a person is involved in a traumatic event, they may feel overwhelmed and their brain may be unable to fully process what is going on. The memory of the event seems to become “stuck” so that it remains very intense and vivid. The person can re-experience what they saw, heard and smelt and the full force of the distress they felt whenever the memory comes to mind.

EMDR aims to help the brain “unstick” and reprocess the memory properly so that it is no longer so intense. It also helps to desensitise the person to the emotional impact of the memory, so that they can think about the event without experiencing such strong feelings.

It does this by asking the person to recall the traumatic event while they also move their eyes from side-to-side, hear a sound in each ear alternately, or feel a tap on each hand alternately. These side-to-side sensations seem to effectively stimulate the “stuck” processing system in the brain so that it can reprocess the information more like an ordinary memory, reducing its intensity.

The effect may be similar to what occurs naturally during REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep, when your eyes move rapidly from side to side as the brain processes the events of the day. Some research suggests that EMDR is effective because concentrating on another task whilst processing a distressing memory gives the brain more work to do*. When the brain is not giving its full attention to processing the memory, it starts to become less vivid. This allows the person to distance themselves from it and begin to remember the event in a more helpful and manageable way.

EMDR is a complex therapeutic process that should always be delivered by properly trained therapists.

* e.g. Gunter & Bodner, 2008

What is it like to experience EMDR?2023-10-19T18:15:50+01:00

Establishing a Therapeutic Relationship and History taking:

EMDR therapy begins with a supportive initial phase, where you discuss your history, identify treatment targets, and develop coping strategies to ensure emotional stability.

Preparation Phase:

The therapist will guide you through exercises to prepare for EMDR, including relaxation techniques and grounding strategies, to ensure you feel safe and manage any emotional distress during sessions.

Identifying Target Memories:

During EMDR sessions, you and your therapist will target distressing memories or experiences, often related to past traumatic events or negative self-perceptions, contributing to emotional difficulties.

Bilateral Stimulation:

EMDR sessions involve bilateral stimulation, such as eye movements, taps, or sounds, to focus on the target memory or belief, facilitating the reprocessing of traumatic memories and adaptive information integration.

Dual Awareness:

The therapist helps the client  maintain dual awareness during bilateral stimulation, focusing on distressing memories or beliefs while maintaining distance from traumatic material, allowing for efficient memory processing without overwhelming the client.

Processing and Integration:

EMDR sessions involve observing and processing sensations, emotions, and thoughts related to target memory, allowing them to emerge naturally without judgement to be processed.


What is EMDR effective in treating?2023-10-21T15:31:10+01:00

EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) is primarily used to treat conditions related to trauma and distressing life experiences. Here are some of the issues that EMDR has shown effectiveness in treating.

  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): This is the most well-known application of EMDR. It is considered an effective treatment for individuals who have experienced traumatic events.
  • Trauma and Stress-Related Disorders: EMDR is useful for a wide range of traumatic experiences, including but not limited to physical or sexual assault, natural disasters, accidents, and childhood abuse.
  • Anxiety Disorders: EMDR has been employed successfully in treating various anxiety disorders, including specific phobias, panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, and generalised anxiety disorder.
  • Depression: While primarily known for trauma treatment, EMDR has shown promise in reducing symptoms of depression, particularly in cases where traumatic experiences contribute to depressive symptoms.
  • Phobias and Fears: EMDR can be effective in treating specific phobias. It helps desensitise individuals to the distressing memories or situations associated with their fears.
  • Grief and Loss: EMDR can be helpful in processing and resolving complicated grief, particularly when it’s linked to traumatic or sudden losses.
  • Performance Anxiety: EMDR can be used to address performance-related anxiety, such as stage fright or fear of public speaking. It helps individuals reprocess negative beliefs and emotions associated with performance situations.
  • Dissociative Disorders: EMDR is sometimes used in the treatment of dissociative disorders, such as Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), in conjunction with other therapeutic approaches.
  • Self-Esteem and Self-Image Issues: EMDR can help individuals reprocess memories and experiences that contribute to negative self-beliefs, leading to improved self-esteem and a more positive self-image.
  • Attachment Issues: EMDR can be effective in treating attachment-related difficulties, especially in cases where early attachment experiences have led to emotional distress or relational challenges.
  • Complex PTSD/ Complex Trauma
  • OCD
What is Trauma?2023-10-19T18:18:34+01:00

Trauma refers to a deeply distressing or disturbing experience that can have long-lasting and often severe psychological effects on an individual. It typically involves a situation where a person feels overwhelmed, helpless, or threatened, and their ability to cope is exceeded by the intensity of the experience.

Trauma can result from a wide range of events, including:

  • Physical or Sexual Assault: This includes any form of non-consensual physical contact or sexual activity.
  • Natural Disasters: Such as earthquakes, hurricanes, floods, or wildfires, which can lead to loss of life, property, and a sense of security.
  • Accidents or Injuries: Especially those resulting in serious harm, disability, or loss of life.
  • War or Conflict: Exposure to combat, witnessing violence, or being a victim of violence in a war zone.
  • Childhood Abuse or Neglect: Physical, emotional, or sexual abuse, as well as neglectful or unstable caregiving environments.
  • Loss of a Loved One: Particularly if it is sudden, violent, or unexpected.
  • Serious Illness or Medical Procedures: Especially if they are painful, invasive, or life-threatening.
  • Psychological Abuse or Manipulation: Such as in toxic relationships or cult-like situations.
  • Bullying or Harassment: Persistent and targeted mistreatment by peers or authority figures.
  • Traumatic Grief: Intense and prolonged grief reactions due to loss, often complicated by the circumstances of the death.

Trauma can lead to a wide range of emotional, psychological, and physical symptoms. These might include flashbacks, nightmares, hypervigilance, avoidance behaviours, mood swings, depression, anxiety, and even physical symptoms like headaches or gastrointestinal issues.

It’s important to note that trauma is a subjective experience, and what is traumatic for one person may not be for another. Additionally, individuals may experience trauma differently based on their age, cultural background, and previous life experiences.

The impact of trauma can be long-lasting, potentially affecting an individual’s relationships, work, and overall quality of life. Seeking support from mental health professionals, such as therapists or counsellors, can be crucial in processing and healing from traumatic experiences.

How will I know if it’s working?2023-10-19T18:24:52+01:00

Knowing if EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) is working can involve recognizing both subtle and significant changes in your thoughts, emotions, and behaviours. Here are some signs that EMDR may be effective for you:

  • Reduction in Distressing Symptoms: You may notice a decrease in symptoms related to trauma, such as flashbacks, nightmares, anxiety, or hypervigilance.
  • Less Emotional Intensity: The emotional charge associated with traumatic memories may start to lessen. Memories that were once highly distressing may feel more manageable.
  • Improved Daily Functioning: You might find it easier to go about your daily activities without being overwhelmed by thoughts or feelings related to the traumatic event.
  • Enhanced Emotional Regulation: You may experience a greater ability to manage your emotions, even in challenging situations.
  • Increased Sense of Safety: You might begin to feel safer and more at ease in situations that previously triggered anxiety or fear.
  • Shift in Beliefs: Negative beliefs about yourself, others, or the world that were associated with the trauma may start to change. You may adopt more positive and adaptive beliefs.
  • Resolution of Specific Memories: You may find that certain traumatic memories no longer hold the same power over you. They may become less intrusive or distressing.
  • Improved Coping Strategies: EMDR can equip you with new coping skills and resources to manage stress and emotional triggers.
  • Greater Self-Acceptance: You might develop a stronger sense of self-worth and self-compassion, which can be particularly important for those who have experienced trauma.
  • Enhanced Relationships: As you process and heal from your trauma, you may find it easier to connect with others and build healthier, more fulfilling relationships.


How many sessions are needed ?2023-10-19T18:26:44+01:00

EMDR therapy sessions vary based on the individual and mental health condition being treated, but typically 8-12 sessions are needed for significant improvement in symptoms. The number of sessions may vary based on the complexity and severity of the symptoms.

Is EMDR the same as Hypnosis?2023-10-21T15:23:52+01:00

No. The purpose of EMDR treatment is to assist clients in processing their memories so they may create a more flexible coping mechanism. Hypnosis is a trance-like condition that is brought on by a mental health expert and  is to provide people with  skills and strategies they need to achieve their goals, not necessarily to analyse memories. EMDR treatment and hypnosis are two distinct procedures.

Does EMDR wipe out memories?2023-10-21T15:25:14+01:00

No, EMDR does not “wipe out” memories. Instead, it aims to help individuals process and integrate traumatic memories in a way that reduces their emotional charge and distressing impact.

Can EMDR be done online?2023-10-21T15:50:56+01:00

Yes, EMDR can be conducted online through video conferencing platforms. This method is often referred to as “telehealth” or “teletherapy.” EMDR conducted through online platforms can be an effective way to receive therapy, especially with clients  who struggle with phobias, have impaired states of health, or just want privacy while receiving mental health therapy may find virtual EMDR to be extremely beneficial. Many therapists have adapted to offering online services, especially in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and have found it to be a valuable option for their clients.

What are the advantages of EMDR therapy?2023-10-21T15:37:08+01:00

EMDR therapy offers several advantages for individuals seeking treatment for trauma and related conditions. Here are some of the key benefits of EMDR therapy:


  • Effectiveness: EMDR has been extensively researched and is recognized as an effective treatment for trauma-related conditions, particularly post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It has also shown promise in treating a range of other psychological difficulties.
  • Focused Approach: EMDR targets specific traumatic memories or experiences, allowing for precise and targeted treatment. This can be particularly helpful for individuals who have experienced specific traumas.
  • Non-Invasive: Unlike some forms of exposure therapy, EMDR does not involve detailed verbal recounting of the traumatic event, which can be distressing for some individuals. Instead, it uses bilateral stimulation to facilitate the processing of memories.
  • Reduced Risk of Re-traumatization: EMDR can be a less re-traumatizing approach compared to traditional exposure therapy, as it does not require clients to vividly and repeatedly recount traumatic events.
  • Empowerment and Self-Efficacy: EMDR empowers individuals to actively engage in their own healing process. It helps clients develop new coping skills and resources to manage distressing emotions.
  • Holistic Approach: EMDR addresses not only the cognitive aspects of trauma but also integrates emotional, sensory, and physiological elements. This holistic approach can lead to more comprehensive healing.
  • No Need to Share Details: While some discussion of the traumatic event is necessary, EMDR does not require clients to provide explicit details of the trauma. This can be comforting for individuals who may find it difficult to talk about their experiences.
  • Can Be Adapted for Online Therapy: EMDR can be effectively conducted through online platforms, providing accessibility for individuals who may not have access to in-person therapy.
  • Generalisation of Skills: The skills learned in EMDR therapy can often be applied to a range of situations, helping individuals cope with various stressors beyond the specific traumatic event.


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