What is EMDR Therapy?

EMDR Therapy

EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) is a special psychotherapeutic technique that can be a very powerful treatment for people who have been emotionally traumatized. EMDR therapy uses eye movements or other alternate hemisphere stimulation to remove the emotional charges of traumatic memories.

As part of EMDR therapy sessions, a therapist may direct you to hold specific memories in mind while tracking the therapist’s hand as it moves back and forth across your field of vision. Diverting your attention in this way while you recall a traumatic event has been found to minimize the emotional response connected to the memory. Researchers believe the therapy activates mechanisms in the brain that help you process the memory and distressing emotions.

Processing Traumatic Memories in the Brain

The brain is naturally wired to help us recover from traumatic events and distressing memories. The healing process involves communication between a variety of brain regions, such as the hippocampus (memory-making center), amygdala (fear center), and prefrontal cortex (behavior center). In some people, however, events can be so traumatic it disrupts the normal flow of neural communication and memories get stuck, making you can feel like you are frozen in time. EMDR helps you get unstuck by restoring the communication process.

What Research Shows About EMDR

Numerous studies show that EMDR therapy offers benefits for emotional trauma and PTSD that typically take years to achieve in psychotherapy alone. A 2014 review of the existing research indicates that 24 randomized controlled studies point to benefits from EMDR treatment for emotional trauma and adverse life events. This review also showed that in some studies, 84% to 90% of people who have experienced a single trauma found relief from PTSD symptoms after just 3 EMDR sessions that lasted 90 minutes each.

In a controlled study by Kaiser Permanente, 67 individuals who had experienced trauma were assigned either to standard care treatment or EMDR. Compared to standard care, the EMDR group showed significantly more improvement on measures of anxiety, depression, and PTSD. In a subsequent study from the same team at Kaiser Permanente, follow-ups on the original study participants at 3 months and 6 months showed that improvements from EMDR had been maintained. The authors concluded that long-lasting benefits can be achieved with relatively few EMDR sessions.

Based on this growing body of research, the American Psychiatric Association and the Department of Veterans’ Affairs have recognized EMDR therapy as an effective treatment for PTSD. A growing body of research on EMDR therapy shows promising results in its effectiveness for other conditions, such as depression, addictions, and more.

Who Can Benefit from EMDR?

EMDR is primarily used to treat people suffering from emotional trauma, but it may also be beneficial for people struggling with other problems. According to the EMDR International Association, practitioners currently use EMDR therapy to address a wide array of issues, including but not limited to:

What’s Involved in EMDR Therapy?

EMDR therapy involves 8 phases that incorporate a variety of elements. It includes looking at past memories, current triggers, and skills and behaviors that can help you in the future.

Phase 1:  History and Treatment Planning

A therapist will review your history, identify specific memories to target, and create a treatment plan.

Phase 2: Preparation

The therapist will share several techniques to help you cope with any emotional distress that may arise during treatment.

Phases 3: Assessment

During this portion of the treatment, you will be directed to identify 3 things associated with the targeted memory to be processed:

  • a visual image related to the memory
  • a negative belief about yourself
  • any physical bodily sensations associated with the memory

Phase 4: Desensitization

As you hold these things in mind, the EMDR processing begins. After the therapist performs the hand movements or other stimulation, you will be asked to let your mind go blank. Then you may either return to continue processing that same memory or move on to process other memories.

Phase 5: Installation

Here you replace the negative belief you had about yourself with a positive belief. For example, a victim of assault may go from believing “I am powerless” to believing “I am in control.”

Phase 6: Body Scan

During this phase, your therapist will work with you to resolve any remaining physical tension or bodily sensations related to the memory.

Phase 7: Closure

The therapist will ensure that at the end of each session, you feel better than when it started. Your therapist will also provide you with strategies to help you handle any distressing emotions that come up in between sessions and will ask you to maintain a journal where you write down any issues that arise.

Phase 8: Reevaluation

At each session, you and your therapist will assess your progress so far and adjust your treatment plan as needed.

Steven’s EMDR Story

To help you understand how EMDR can work for emotional trauma like PTSD, take a look at Steven’s story.

Steven, a 33-year-old bicycle repair mechanic working in Santa Monica, California, took an early lunch on a summer day in 2003 and walked to the local farmer’s market. Within minutes, disaster struck when an 87-year-old man lost control of his car and barreled through the throngs of people at the market. The car was headed straight for Steven, who later said, “I thought he was going to run over my legs…I thought I would lose my legs.”

At the last possible moment, Steven was able to jump out of the way, but 10 people were killed and more than 50 were injured. Traumatized, Steven went back to work.  But for months, he couldn’t sleep, and he shook constantly. As in the case of most people who develop PTSD, the Santa Monica farmer’s market disaster was not Steven’s only trauma. He grew up in a severely abusive alcoholic home and also faced death as a tank commander during the Gulf War.

Steven decided to undergo an evaluation and EMDR therapy as a component of his treatment. As part of his assessment, Steven underwent 3 brain scans using brain SPECT imaging technology—before treatment, during his first EMDR session, and after 8 hours of EDMR treatments.

Initially, his brain scan showed a diamond pattern that is often seen in PTSD, with an overactive limbic area, basal ganglia, and anterior cingulate. Then with the help of a trained EMDR therapist, Steven began clearing out the traumas—one by one. His brain actually showed benefit during the first treatment and was markedly improved after only 8 hours of treatment. Steven’s shaking had subsided, and he felt significantly better. With EMDR, Steven was able to change his brain and change his life for the better.

PTSD, emotional trauma, and other mental health issues can’t wait. At Amen Clinics, we’re here for you. We offer in-clinic brain scanning and appointments, as well as mental telehealth, clinical evaluations, and therapy for adults, teens, children, and couples. Find out more by speaking to a specialist today at 888-288-9834 or visit our contact page here.


  1. I was diagnosed with PTSD by a therapist but my trauma was from years of sexual abuse by my father and hate from my mother and refusal to believe me. I suffer guilt and shame. Can EMDR help me? I repressed the sexual abuse. I am now 73. Does my age make a difference?

    I live in Cape Coral, Florida. Are there any therapists using this type of. Therapy in my area?

    Comment by Jane Baddoo — July 26, 2019 @ 3:29 AM

  2. I always enjoy listening to your podcast and reading your information in the emails. In this web link, I like that you provide information and then followed it up with a real life example so that people can see why they disorder, treatment, and a recovery look like in real life. Well done.

    Comment by Hans — July 26, 2019 @ 5:18 AM

  3. I would imagine this would be synergistic with EFT tapping

    Comment by Greg — July 26, 2019 @ 5:59 AM

  4. Please consider opening a clinic in Minneapolis area, I know many people that could benefit from your practice. Thank You!

    Comment by Trish Rogers — July 26, 2019 @ 6:04 AM

  5. A clinic in the middle of the country would be a great addition to the existing ones–how about Wichita or Kansas City?

    Comment by Cathryn Hay — July 26, 2019 @ 7:06 AM

  6. I am an EMDR therapist and consultant. EMDR is often applied to sexual abuse survivors with great results. The international organization EMDRIA has a search tool to find a therapist in your area. EMDRIA.org

    Comment by Julia — July 26, 2019 @ 7:24 AM

  7. Great article, easy to read and understand. EMDR is a powerful therapy tool but often over looked as it can be hard for people to understand how it works.

    Comment by Nicole LoRe — July 26, 2019 @ 7:57 AM

  8. Do you have something for chronic and repeated nightmares of evil and perverseness? Afraid to sleep, so not getting it.

    Comment by Mary Sims — July 26, 2019 @ 9:13 AM

  9. I was given 2 free EMDR sessions through Hospice if Santa Barbara after holding my son as he passed from pancreatic cancer. It was like a miracle for me. I had been stuck in images & feelings of despair. One was the moment he called to tell me of the diagnosis & we hopped in the car to drive from AZ. The other was the details of his passing. I hadn’t realized I wasn’t breathing properly & couldn’t think clearly because I had been the “strong” caregiver who had moved in to help handle things. Anyhow, EMDR was truly a lifesaver for me.

    Comment by Jan Miller — July 26, 2019 @ 11:50 AM

  10. Dear Jane,
    Thank you for your vulnerability to share your story. I just want to encourage by my testimony of sexual, physical and emotional abuse background in my childhood. I deeply sympathized your pain and it doesn’t matter of you age. You could be free and you deserved the freedom. EMDR is very helpful on my recovery journey. Mostly I want you know that you are so loved and valuable. Shame and Guilt are all lies. I will pray for you! God bless you!

    Comment by Sunshine — July 26, 2019 @ 1:29 PM

  11. Hi
    Does anybody know whether EMDR were also good for brain Trauma???

    Comment by Monika — July 27, 2019 @ 3:49 AM

  12. Dear Jane, Yes, EMDR can help you. You have a brain with great potential for health. I am an EMDR therapist and had a client in her 80s who asked that question during the first few sessions again and again. But she healed and stopped doubting. Everyone represses the sexual abuse if they don’t have safe people to go to to talk about it. That is a mechanism for staying sane, and it helps kids get through childhood. But it limits you in adulthood. Wouldn’t it be nice to be free of those limitations. Please go to EMDRIA.org and search for a Certified EMDR therapist in your area. Those therapists have a higher level of training and experience. You deserve that to help you through the vulnerability of addressing this work. As the vulnerability eases, the strengths come to the fore. It will be reinforcing to do the work, which isn’t easy, but it will never be as hard as the original experience you have already had. Wishing you well in your healing project!

    Comment by Dana Terrell, LCSW — July 27, 2019 @ 6:23 AM

  13. Dear Dr. Amen,

    There is another application for EMDR that shows great promise: for relationships.

    I have been researching my integration of Bowen theory of emotional maturity in relationships with EMDR therapy, called “Integrative Bowen and EMDR (or iBE) therapy.” It is showing that people can make much faster progress in one year (individual therapy) or a 3 day group workshop than Bowen considered possible in the span of one lifetime. I’m in the process of writing up my pilot studies. I’ve also written a book to introduce people to Bowen and EMDR. It is called “When I Do Relationships SO RIGHT How Do They Go SO WRONG.” It’s available on Amazon in print, audio and ebook formats.

    I’ve attended four of your excellent courses and believe your discovery of an overfocused brain is extremely valuable to my clients. It helps many of them understand why any other problem they have is magnified, because they overfocus on it. Your guidance to overcome that brain helps them a great deal. THANK YOU!! I hope that eventually the DSM will include that diagnosis so countless others can be helped in the same way. Best wishes in all you do to serve humankind!

    Dana Elken Terrell, LCSW, EAC

    Comment by Dana Terrell, LCSW — July 27, 2019 @ 6:28 AM

  14. Do you have a clinic near Chicago il?

    Comment by Suzanne Dotts — July 27, 2019 @ 9:01 AM

  15. Hello Suzanne, thank you for reaching out. Yes, we have a clinic in Bannockburn, IL:https://amenclinics.com/locations/chicago/.

    Comment by Amen Clinics — July 29, 2019 @ 7:11 AM

  16. I work with several therapists who do EMDR and have taken the EMDR course myself. When I refer a patient to a therapist for EMDR I always show them the, ” Steven’s story” video first. There are lots of EMDR videos out there, but I like this one the best because of your easy to understand explanation of how it works. And the patients can see the before and after scans for themselves. Thank you Dr. Amen and thank you Steven for sharing. Your video has helped a lot of people understand EMDR , and also helps put their mind at ease about starting EMDR !

    Thank you!!

    Susan Walla, APRN, MHNP-BC
    Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner

    Comment by Sue Walla, APRN — July 29, 2019 @ 11:52 AM

  17. Thanks for this very important information. There’s hope for those who suffering from trauma.

    Comment by Roberta Allen — July 30, 2019 @ 5:01 AM

  18. I have been battling debilitating Treatment Resistant Depression for over 30 years.

    I’ve tried dozens of treatments and medications to no avail.

    Several months ago I was at a point I’d come to many times over the years. Where I couldn’t take the pain any longer. I needed to see a therapist again, hoping some talk therapy would give me a little relief from a very long bout of unrelenting pain from this depression and feeling that I just wanted to die.

    My boyfriend found a therapist named Glaser Burkhardt. I thought he was going to do the traditional talk therapy. Within 15 minutes of our first session he told me I needed to be treated for PTSD, not depression. He was the first therapist to diagnose me with PTSD, despite me telling others I thought I had it.

    It took 6, hour and forty minute EMDR sessions over a 6 week period and all PTSD symptoms were gone. I have not felt like this, my old self, for over 30 years!! I have not felt like killing myself or wanting to die since that last session In April. I would describe my depression as mild and It is slowly but surely subsiding a little bit week after week. I have not had a single day stuck in bed paralyzed unable to move or do anything since completing EMDR therapy.

    Just weeks before I had emdr I had given up hope, I thought I’d struggle the rest of my life with depression. So this therapy has been nothing short of a miracle for me.

    If you are suffering from depression I urge you to try EMDR. Many people I know have had the same positive results, many didn’t even have a diagnosis for depression or ptsd.

    Life is hard, everyone has experienced some sort of trauma, big or small, it doesn’t matter, that has affected them. EMDR Therapy will more than likely help you. It usually only takes 4-12 hours and is covered by insurances.

    Comment by Corey Lakin — September 1, 2019 @ 2:35 PM

  19. No. Unfortunately, this therapy is only suitable for MENTAL/EMOTIONAL trauma, NOT PHYSICAL trauma.

    Comment by Kylie Beam — January 25, 2020 @ 6:11 AM

  20. It's good to know that EMDR therapy can help with both depression and anxiety. I have a younger brother who deals with both of those mental health issues. I'll recommend that my parents look into EMDR therapy for my brother to hopefully reduce his symptoms of depression and anxiety.

    Comment by Charlotte Fleet — November 1, 2022 @ 4:46 PM

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