Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is an approach to psychotherapy that has shown to accelerate information processing and healing from difficulties. While it was originally believed to help with trauma, it also demonstrates great effectiveness with a wide range of life problems and difficult experiences.

Dr. Francine Shapiro discovered the usefulness of EMDR one day when she was walking through the park and thinking about a disturbing experience. Accidentally, she realized that she was moving her eyes back and forth as she was processing this experience. She also realized that she did not feel as negatively impacted by it as before. She began to study the effects of eye movements on others with traumatic experiences and the results indicated the people were working through these issues more effectively and in a shorter period of time than traditional therapy.

While Dr. Shapiro’s original discovery involved eye movements, we now know that activation of the right and left hemispheres through any bilateral stimulation can be effective. These may include eye movements, back and forth hand taps/stimulation, or back and forth auditory tones.

How does it work?

When we have a traumatic experience or any stressful past event, it is believed that the rational parts of our brain shut down during that experience. The emotional driven parts of our brain and our survival instincts become activated. These strong emotions may interfere with our ability to fully process the incident and therefore, this experience may become “frozen” or locked in the emotional part of our brain. We may then be triggered in our daily lives by certain experiences, smells, sensations, etc.

The bilateral stimulation in EMDR is believed to help the various parts of our brain to communicate with each other more effectively so that we can unlock or unfreeze this experience and process it and resolve it. The bilateral stimulation produced in EMDR is thought to be similar to the eye movements that happen when we dream in REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep. When we dream, our eyes move back and forth under our eyelids. This is believed to help with processing experiences that happen in our daily lives. Through EMDR the memory will not be erased, but we will be able to access more positive ways of reframing the experience and release negative emotions associated with the experience.

EMDR is different than hypnosis. During EMDR, you will not be in an altered state that is often associated with hypnosis. You will be completely aware of what is going on during the entire session and you will have control over the process.

There are eight phases in EMDR:

Phase One: History taking and treatment planning

During this phase, your therapist will gather information about your history. You will be asked a variety of questions related to your experiences, behaviors, emotions, and any concerns. A treatment plan will then be jointly made for EMDR to begin. An important difference to note in EMDR history taking is that you will not be required to provide verbal details of the traumatic event. The most important to know here are the emotions and sensations you experience.

Phase Two: Preparation

During Preparation the therapist will assess your resources for coping with strong emotions that may arise during EMDR sessions or in-between sessions. Time will be taken to teach and practice healthy coping and self-care skills if needed. This stage is also a time when the EMDR process will be introduced. You will learn what to expect and can address any questions.

Phase Three: Assessment

During this phase your therapist will clarify the specific problem area what will be targeted in EMDR. You will be walked through in discussing the image that best represents this problem, how it negatively makes you think about yourself, how you would like the view yourself, what emotions you have revolving around it, and any bodily sensations it produces.

Phase Four: Desensitization

During Desensitization the therapist will begin to use bilateral stimulation on the target problem. In-between sets of bilateral stimulation your therapist will be checking in with your level of disturbance related to the target problem. The length of this phase will vary depending on the issue that needs to be resolved.

Phase Five: Installation

During Installation you will focus on the positive belief you chose to replace the negative beliefs about yourself related to the target problem. During this phase we want to strengthen the positive belief about yourself and link it with the old problem.

Phase Six: Body Scan

This phase focuses on any lingering physical sensations connected to the problem. You will mentally scan your body for any residual tension related to the issue being addressed. Any sensations will be targeting with bilateral stimulation until they are resolved.

Phase Seven: Closure

The goal is to leave the session feeling better than before. If the target problem was not resolved in any particular session, you will be walked through some relaxation skills. Relaxation and coping skills will be reviewed for you to use in-between sessions as well. Reprocessing may continue to occur in-between sessions, so your therapist will ask you to keep note of any new or unusual experiences you have until you return for your next session.

Phase Eight: Re-evaluation

During this phase your therapist will review any material that you gathered in-between sessions. You will review previously targeted problem areas. You and your therapist will decide if old material needs additional reprocessing or if you go onto reprocessing new material.