EMDR Therapy

What is EMDR?

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) is an interactive psychotherapeutic technique that can be very helpful for people who have posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other trauma-related symptoms or conditions. Research suggests that traumatic events can interfere with how the brain processes information. Consequently, the experience and memories can get “stuck” in the brain and make a person vulnerable to conscious or unconscious triggers from recollections, images, sounds, smells, and feelings that are reminiscent of the traumatic experience.

EMDR therapy uses bilateral hemispheric brain stimulation in the form of left to right eye movements, hand-held pulsating devices, headphones, or tapping on the knees to reduce or remove the emotional charges of traumatic memories. This therapy doesn’t block a memory, but rather it activates mechanisms in the brain that help you process the memory and emotions it evokes.

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Why Choose Amen Clinics for EMDR?

Amen Clinics has more than two decades of experience using EMDR with patients and, along with other researchers, published a study in The Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neuroscience on EMDR and brain SPECT imaging in police officers who had PTSD. Over the course of several weeks, the officers attended about four EMDR sessions that lasted 2-3 hours each. The study results showed that EMDR was very effective in alleviating the officers’ symptoms of PTSD in addition to showing improved brain function on their follow-up SPECT scans.

Healing from emotional trauma requires healthy communication between a variety of brain regions, which is why Amen Clinics takes a brain-centered approach to treatment. EMDR therapy may be recommended as part of a multifaceted program to address your individual needs.


What are the Benefits of EMDR?

EMDR can help people recover from trauma as well as other distressing mental health conditions. The goal of this treatment is to shift the way your brain has stored traumatic memories and reduce or eliminate the anguish caused by the symptoms. When EMDR is effective, a person who undergoes it comes to understand, both consciously in their mind and unconsciously in the physical functioning of their brain, that the event is in the past and no longer a threat. This means a reduction in symptoms, a shift from a negative self-belief to a neutral or more positive one, and the possibility of improved occupational, social, and relational functioning as well as a greater quality of life.

Ready to learn more? Speak to a care coordinator today!

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What the Research Says About EMDR

In addition to the Amen Clinics research on EMDR, there are many other studies that show the effectiveness EMDR therapy offers for PTSD and other traumatic experiences that may otherwise take years to achieve in regular talk-based psychotherapy. And, because of the nature that emotionally charged memories have, many people find that talking a lot about what happened can elicit increased anxiety regarding the traumatic event(s), making it more difficult to fully process those experiences. In a study by Kaiser Permanente, people who had experienced a single trauma or multiple traumas underwent six 50-minute EMDR therapy sessions. In a follow-up study, 100% of the single-trauma patients and 77% of multiple-trauma patients no longer had PTSD. In 2020, research published in BMC Psychiatry found that when patients with a history of trauma were in an acute mental health crisis, EMDR therapy led to a significant improvement in symptoms, including a reduction in suicidal thoughts.

Because it has been well-validated for the treatment of trauma, the American Psychiatric Association, the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, the American Psychological Association, and other prominent organizations have recognized that EMDR therapy can be an effective treatment for PTSD and trauma. Furthermore, a growing body of research has found that EMDR shows promise for the treatment of numerous other psychiatric disorders as well.

Who Can Benefit from EMDR?

Although EMDR is most commonly used to treat people suffering from the effects of trauma, it is also being used to help those who are struggling with a wide array of mental health conditions, including:

What Do SPECT Scans Show About PTSD, EMDR, and the Brain?

The research team at Amen Clinics has published multiple brain SPECT imaging studies on PTSD that show significant increases in activity in the limbic (emotional) and other areas of the brain in a pattern that looks like a diamond. The affected brain areas are the anterior cingulate gyrus, which indicates a fixation on negative thoughts or behaviors; the basal ganglia and amygdala, involved with anxiety and fear; and the thalamus, which shows a heightened sensory awareness. In addition, we may see increased activity in the right lateral temporal lobe, in an area of the brain involved in reading the intentions of other people, which is understandable after a trauma.

Normal “Active” Brain SPECT Scan

The most active area is the cerebellum in the back bottom part of the brain.

Classic PTSD Scan

Diamond Plus pattern shows increased activity in the anterior cingulate gyrus (top of diamond), basal ganglia/amygdala (middle), and thalamus (bottom) as well as right lateral temporal lobe (arrow).

An Amen Clinics patient, 33-year-old Steven, experienced a horrific trauma when he witnessed a car barrel through throngs of people at a local farmer’s market, killing 10 of them and nearly striking Steven. As is often the case in people who develop PTSD, the farmer’s market disaster was not Steven’s only trauma. He grew up in a severely abusive alcoholic household. One of his earliest memories was of his father burning down the family home. He also remembered that his father had dangled him over the side of a 400-foot-high bridge. When he was 11, his favorite firefighter uncle died in a fire set by an arsonist, and Steven faced death as a tank commander during the Gulf War. He had many layers of trauma.

As part of his evaluation at Amen Clinics, Steven underwent brain SPECT imaging 3 times: before treatment, during his first EMDR session, and after 8 hours of EMDR treatments. Steven’s first brain scan showed the classic PTSD pattern (see image above). By doing EMDR therapy with him, his traumas were cleared out one by one. His brain actually showed benefit during the first EMDR session and was markedly improved after 8 hours of treatment.

When the EMDR therapy was finished, Steven felt calmer and less stressed, and the shaking that began with the farmer’s market trauma had subsided. He also said he was happier and able to sleep better.

Baseline “Active” SPECT Scan

Strong Diamond Plus Pattern

During First EMDR Session

Calming starting to occur

After 8 Hours of EMDR Treatment

Most active areas are in the cerebellum at the back of the brain


“The brain health revolution starts with you.”

– Daniel G. Amen, M.D.


What to Expect with EMDR Therapy?

EMDR is different from other types of therapy in that it doesn’t require talking at great length about traumatic experiences or other distressing events. Instead, EMDR therapy enhances brain function to help the healing process. It involves 8 phases that incorporate a variety of elements, including looking at trauma-related memories, current triggers, and skills and behaviors that can help you in the future.

Phase 1: History and Treatment Planning

The therapist will review your clinical history with you and discuss the reasons you are seeking treatment. Then the therapist will help you identify specific memories to target, and have you rate your level of distress caused by them. From there, a treatment plan will be created.

Phase 2: Preparation

The therapist will share several techniques to help you relax and cope with any emotional reactions that may arise during treatment, and make sure you feel emotionally safe before proceeding. The therapist will also let you know that you can stop the process any time you feel too overwhelmed.

Phase 3: Assessment

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

  • a visual image related to the memory
  • a negative belief about yourself that the memory triggers
  • your emotional reactions and/or any physical bodily sensations associated with the memory

The therapist will also ask you to choose a positive belief about yourself within the context of the distressing memory, even if it isn’t a belief you fully accept at this juncture.

Phase 4: Desensitization

As you hold the image from the memory in mind, the EMDR processing begins. After the therapist has done the hand movements (or one of the other types of brain stimulation), you will be given the opportunity to share your thoughts. Then you may either resume processing that same memory or move on to process another one.

Phase 5: Installation

Here you replace the negative belief you had about yourself with the 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 may ask you to maintain a journal for writing down any issues that arise.

Phase 8: Re-evaluation

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


“With a better brain comes a better life”

– Daniel G. Amen, M.D.


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