EMDR Therapy

What is EMDR?

EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) is a special psychotherapeutic technique that can be a very powerful treatment for people who have experienced trauma or are struggling with other distressing conditions. This form of therapy is based on research suggesting that traumatic events can prevent the brain from processing information as it normally does, which results in these events getting “stuck” in the brain’s information processing center. Then, when someone who experienced a trauma recalls it, the memory triggers an intense re-experiencing of the original event, complete with all its upsetting sights, sounds, smells, thoughts, and feelings. New incidents can have the same effect.

EMDR therapy uses eye movements or other alternate hemisphere stimulation to remove the emotional charges of traumatic memories. Researchers believe the therapy activates mechanisms in the brain that help you process the memory and distressing emotions.

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Why Choose Amen Clinics for EMDR?

Amen Clinics has close to two decades of experience with EMDR 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 with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The study results showed that EMDR was very effective in quickly alleviating the officers’ symptoms, as well as normalizing brain function on SPECT scans. Healing from emotional trauma requires healthy communication between a variety of brain regions. While most psychologists and psychiatrists never look at the organ they treat, Amen Clinics is the global leader in brain health and takes a brain-centered approach to treatment. EMDR therapies may be recommended as part of a multifaceted program to address your individual needs.


What are the Benefits of EMDR?

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing can help people recover from trauma as well as other distressing conditions. The goal of EMDR treatment is the rapid processing of information about a negative experience and movement toward an adaptive resolution. 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 distress, a shift from a negative belief to a more positive one, and the possibility of more optimal behavior in relationships and at work. It is often used with people who suffer from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a lasting emotional response to severe trauma that changes the nervous system.

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What the Research Says About EMDR

In addition to the Amen Clinics research on EMDR, numerous other 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 showed that in some studies, 84% to 90% of people who have experienced a single trauma found relief from PTSD symptoms after just three EMDR sessions that lasted 90 minutes each. 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.

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 has found that eye movement desensitization and reprocessing shows promise for the treatment of other conditions as well.

Who Can Benefit from EMDR?

Although EMDR therapies are primarily used to treat people suffering from trauma, it is being used for people struggling with a wide array of conditions, including:

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

The research team at Amen Clinics has published several brain SPECT imaging studies on PTSD that show significant increases in activity in the limbic or emotional 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 the thalamus, which shows a heightened sensory awareness. In addition, we 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

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

Classic PTSD Scan

Diamond Plus pattern shows increased activity in anterior cingulate (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 people 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 home. 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’s brain was scanned times: before treatment, during his first EMDR session, and after 8 hours of EMDR treatments. Initially, Steven’s brain showed the classic PTSD pattern, with his limbic or emotional brain being extremely hyperactive. Using EMDR therapy with him, his traumas were cleared out one by one. His brain actually showed benefit during the first treatment and was markedly improved after 8 hours of treatment.

Following treatment, Steven felt calmer and less stressed, and the shaking that he had been experiencing since the farmer’s market trauma 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 distressing events or issues, which many people find difficult to do. Instead, EMDR therapies enhance brain function to help the healing process. 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.

Phase 3: Assessment

During this portion of the treatment, 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
  • 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: Re-evaluation

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


“With a better brain comes a better life”

– Daniel G. Amen, M.D.


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