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EMDR: What is it and what are the potential benefits?

What is EMDR?

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) is a psychotherapy approach to treating trauma and other adverse life experiences an individual may experience [1]. In EMDR therapy, the clinician helps the client to transform negative experiences into adaptive learning experiences [1]. The disturbing memory and associated negative emotions, beliefs, and images become less vivid through EMDR [1]. The standard protocol for EMDR involves processing earlier events as well as present triggers and imagining a positive future [5].

How Does EMDR Work?

EMDR therapy consists of 8 phases: history taking, preparation, assessment, desensitization, installation, body scan, closure, and reassessment [2].



History Taking

Gathering background information and determining whether EMDR is the right treatment approach for a particular client


Preparing the client for EMDR


Accessing the target for EMDR through memories


Processing of experiences in a non-stressful manner


Increasing connections to positive cognitive networks

Body Scan

Completing the processing of disturbances


Ensuring the client’s stability


Ensuring the maintenance of treatment outcomes and the stability of the client

In EMDR therapy, the therapist exposes the patient to bilateral stimulation, which involves alternating bilateral eye movement, auditory, or tactile stimulation [8]. Bilateral stimulation, or stimulating both sides of the brain, is performed while the patient recalls the negative memory and/or event, which helps to file memories into a more efficient place [8, 9].

There is still a lot to learn about EMDR, but one hypothesis about how it works involves the working memory theory [9]. The working memory theory hypothesizes that the process of bringing a long-term memory back into working memory while undergoing bilateral stimulation diminishes the vividness of the memory and reduces the emotional charge of the memory [9].

What are the Benefits of EMDR?

EMDR has proven to be effective for individuals who have been diagnosed with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). For instance, one study compared the efficacy of two different treatment options: EMDR and prolonged exposure. Both approaches showed a significant reduction in PTSD and depressive symptoms, and these were maintained after 3 months [7]. However, successful treatment was reached faster with EMDR (70% of participants had a reduction in PTSD symptoms after 3 sessions as opposed to 17% with prolonged exposure) [7]. EMDR also had a lower dropout rate when compared to prolonged exposure [7], meaning participants tended to stick with the therapy. In addition, distress ratings decreased significantly during the initial EMDR session and changed little during prolonged exposure, however, both treatments reduced PTSD symptom severity [7].

EMDR has also proven to be effective in treating individuals who have experienced distress but do not quite meet the criteria for PTSD [3]. Specifically, 3 hours of a slightly adapted EMDR treatment resulted in significantly lower distress levels [3]. This suggests that EMDR therapy can be effective at lowering distress in individuals who have experienced adverse life events, but who do not have PTSD. In addition, when comparing clients who have received EMDR versus other treatments, clients who received EMDR therapy reported the greatest reduction in PTSD symptoms [4]. Furthermore, in a 4-week treatment session, EMDR proved to be effective in reducing PTSD, anxiety, and depressive symptoms in individuals who experienced a life-threatening cardiac event [6].

To Conclude…

EMDR is an effective treatment option not only for individuals who have been diagnosed with PTSD, but also those who have lived through adverse life experiences. EMDR therapy has proven to be effective in reducing symptoms of PTSD, anxiety, and depression. This treatment works by helping to process negative memories and transform the associated beliefs into those that are more positive.

Blog post written by Jena Iuliano and Kassandra Burk.

Literature review prepared by Kassandra Burk.

*The information contained in this blog post is based on a narrative review of available literature. Some studies may have been unintentionally omitted. You are advised to speak with a healthcare professional to determine if the information is appropriate to your specific circumstances.*


[1] Shapiro F. (2001). Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR): basic principles, protocols and procedures. 2nd ed. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.

[2] Shapiro F. (2012). EMDR therapy training manual. Watsonville, CA: EMDR Institute.

[3] Cvetek, R. (2008). EMDR Treatment of Distressful Experiences That Fail to Meet the Criteria for PTSD. Journal of EMDR Practice and Research Vol 2 Issue 1, DOI:10.1891/1933-3196.2.1.2. Retrived from

[4] Sprang, G. (2001). The Use of Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) in the Treatment of Traumatic Stress and Complicated Mourning: Psychological and Behavioral Outcomes. Research on Social Work Practice.

[5] Wilensky, M. (2006). Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) as a Treatment for Phantom Limb Pain. Journal of Brief Therapy. Retrieved from

[6] Arabia, E., Manca, M. L., & Solomon, R. M. (2011). EMDR for Survivors of Life-Threatening Cardiac Events: Results of a Pilot Study. Journal of EMDR Practice and Research Vol 5 Issue 1, DOI: 10.1891/1933-3196.5.1.2. Retrieved from

[7] Ironson, G., Freund, B., Strauss, J. L., & Williams, J. (2001). Comparison of two treatments for traumatic stress: A community-based study of EMDR and prolonged exposure. Journal of Clinical Psychology. Retrived from

[8] Amano, T. & Toichi, M. (2016). The Role of Alternating Bilateral Stimulation in Establishing Positive Cognition in EMDR Therapy: A Multi-Channel Near-Infrared Spectroscopy Study. National Library of Medicine. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0162735

[9] Kotler, N. (2016). In EMDR Therapy, ‘Bilateral Stimulation’ is Used. What is Bilateral Stimulation & Why is it Important? Blog Post. Retrieved from


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