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Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing

Updated: Jan 20, 2023

Just like physical injury, emotional wounds need to heal right to heal correctly. If you broke a bone, your body would work to heal the injury. However, the bone may need to be reset before proper healing can occur or else the bone will not heal, and the pain may worsen over time. Emotional trauma works in much the same way. The brain naturally aims towards balanced mental health. Still, sometimes emotional trauma can get in the way of proper processing and cause emotional pain and suffering. Sometimes, to move past these traumatic events requires you to reopen that emotional wound and learn how to heal it properly. This may be painful in the short term, but with care and attention, it can lead to less pain and suffering in the long run.

Eye movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is an integrative psychotherapy that helps people heal from emotional and psychological trauma. It consists of standardized protocols that use memories and emotions paired with bilateral stimulation and body sensations to relieve and resolve psychological trauma and stress. Trauma affects the processing function in our brain. EMDR attempts to help process past and current trauma, decrease the emotional charge of memories (hence desensitization) and create links to positive memory networks (hence reprocessing).

EMDR can be helpful to people of all ages and has been proven to help treat:

· Depression

· Anxiety

· Panic attacks

· Eating disorders

· Addictions


Though some studies have also shown EMDR therapy can successfully treat pain disorders, panic attacks, sexual dysfunction, sexual and physical abuse, body dysmorphic issues, performance anxiety, stress management, eating disorders, personality disorders, dissociative disorders, phobias, and complicated grief.

How Does EMDR Work

The goal is to relive specific traumatic events safely and responsibly. This is done in short doses (as not to overload you) and while a trained therapist directs your eye movements. The eye movements (or other bilateral stimulation) allow you to divert your attention, making the impact of the memory less emotionally distressing. It allows you to remember distressing events without having a strong psychological response.

EMDR treatment is usually broken down into 8 phases stretched over multiple sessions (the number of sessions depends on the extent of the trauma but averages around 12 sessions).

Phase 1: History and Planning

In the first phase, the therapist will get to know you and your history (past or current trauma) and identify potential memories that may be causing you psychological distress. They will also assess your readiness for treatment and which skills and behaviour will need to be developed in order to create healthy coping habits. The therapist will develop a treatment plan customized to you and your needs with this information.

Phase 2: Preparation

Reliving emotionally charged memories can create a lot of distress, mainly because the desensitization process takes time. Before the treatment can begin, the therapist must ensure that you have several ways of handling distress and a healthy manner. They will teach you coping methods with emotional and psychological stress and stress reduction techniques that can be used in-between and during sessions.

Phases 3 – 6: Targeting and Treatment

These phases start with further identifying and targeting specific memories and their layers and components associated (like physical sensations or visual images). To target and process the memory, you must:

1. Identify the visual image related to the memory,

2. Identify a negative belief about the self, and,

3. Identify related emotions and body sensations felt when concentrating on the memory.

Then, you will identify and rate a positive belief (this will come in later).

"Bilateral stimulation is a generalization of the left and right repetitive eye movement technique […]. Alternative stimuli include auditory stimuli that alternate between left and right speakers or headphones and physical stimuli such as tapping of the therapist's hands" (Wikipedia)

After this, the therapist will ask you to focus on the negative image and body sensations while using bilateral stimulation. The type of stimulation will depend on and the case and the client.

When this is done, you will be asked to let your mind go blank and focus on whatever thought, feelings, or sensations come up. You will identify these to the therapist. You may be asked to refocus on the memory or move on to the next targeted memory.

This process will occur in repeating sets: target, focus on the memory, let your mind go blank, and repeat. Suppose feelings of distress arise or you are having difficulty processing. In that case, the therapist will stop and help bring you back to the present before getting back on track. Over time this distress associated with particular memories and images will fade.

The last step in these phases occurs after the distress has completely faded. The therapist will then ask you to remember the positive belief from the start of the session.

Phase 7: Closure

You will likely have to keep a log during the week, in which you will document any related material (such as events, or feelings/emotions that cause distress) that may arise. This will help remind you of the coping mechanisms learned in phase 2.

Phase 8: Evaluation

In the last phase of this process, you will examine and discuss your journey so far and how you think you are progressing after the sessions. Your therapist will likely do the same.


EMDR therapy has fewer side effects than prescription medication, but it can also strengthen the effectiveness of medications. Side affects, though rare and mild, are far less likely than medication. They include light-headedness and vivid realistic dreams. This is due to the heightened focus created by the sessions.

EMDR therapy can be an effective way to move past trauma that may be holding you back. Though it can be very beneficial in the long run, treatment can be quite stressful. It may cause more emotional stress, particularly through the start of sessions. The desensitization process takes time but trusts the process. Plan sessions for days where you don't have important tasks to do afterward and have the time to relax and recharge.

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing


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