What Happens in EMDR Therapy?

EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing, and it’s a form of trauma therapy that helps people get past distressing memories and the problems they cause. It’s particularly effective for treating PTSD, but it’s also used to treat anxiety, depression and other mental health issues.

During an EMDR session, your therapist will move their fingers back and forth in front of you and ask you to follow the movements with your eyes. They’ll also have you recall a disturbing memory and focus on the emotions and body sensations that go along with it. Your therapist will then guide you to replace negative beliefs about yourself and the event with healthier, more empowered ones. They may also help you find new coping strategies, so you can move forward with your life in a more resilient way.

In this phase, your therapist EMDR Therapy will also ask you to think about positive things that make you feel good, while scanning your body from head to toe for any lingering physical tension. This is so that you can replace negative, self-defeating beliefs with healthier, more empowering ones and give yourself permission to heal.

The next stage is called desensitisation, and during this part of the process, your therapist will activate both hemispheres of your brain through bilateral stimulation, or alternating right and left sensory input—whether it’s hand or toe tapping, music tones or light flickering. They’ll then have you recall the traumatic memory again, but this time, with a more neutral attitude. Your therapist will also help you develop emotional regulation and calming skills, so you can cope if the memory becomes triggered during the rest of your EMDR sessions.

Once you’ve desensitised the memory and replaced your negative beliefs with more empowering ones, your therapist will again run through the eye movements, but this time, you’ll be asked to focus on any lingering physical sensations. This is so that you can identify any lingering physiology that still needs to be addressed.

As you continue to progress through the EMDR protocol, your therapist will gradually stop using the finger movements and allow you to focus only on the positive beliefs until your body feels completely relaxed. They’ll then switch to a different set of EMDR exercises, such as focusing on a safe place or breathing deeply to bring you back into balance.

EMDR is well-researched and is an effective treatment for a wide range of psychological and physical problems. It’s especially helpful for those who have been impacted by adverse childhood experiences, such as abuse and neglect. However, it would be valuable to have rigorous randomized controlled trials (RCTs) to compare EMDR with standard care for these conditions.

Although EMDR is relatively quick and accessible, it’s an emotionally intense treatment that requires commitment, resilience and a support system from your therapist and the people around you. But, according to Solarte-Erlacher, the payoff is worth it. It’s been shown to be as effective as medications and other therapies in addressing PTSD, and it can be used to address a number of other mental health issues, including dissociative disorders, anxiety, phobias, depression, eating disorders and traumatic events.