What Is Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)?

Learn About EMDR Treatment for Reducing Distress in People with PTSD

Man looking to the side
EMDR seeks to replicate the rapid eye movement of dreaming; the patient is instructed to follow the fingers as the therapist moves them rhythmically back and forth in front of his eyes while remembering a particular event.. Shutterstock/eurobanks

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) is a treatment for PTSD as well as other mental health conditions (see below). The treatment brings together your traumatic memories and positive thoughts and beliefs to help reduce the distress stemming from your traumatic event. With these thoughts and images in mind, you will be asked to also pay attention to an outside stimulus such as eye movements or finger tappings guided by the therapist.

 

EMDR treatment focuses on the PTSD-related aspects of the major time periods in your life: 

What Happens During EMDR Treatment?

Step 1. Your EMDR therapist will start the session by asking you to bring to mind emotionally unpleasant memories, images, thoughts about yourself, and body sensations that stem from your traumatic event. Then, at the same time as you hold these thoughts and images in your mind, your therapist will ask you to pay attention to an outside stimulus. For example, you could be asked to move your eyes back and forth to follow the movements of the therapist's hand.

Step 2. You'll deep-breathe and then discuss with your therapist any new distressing thoughts that came into your mind during Step 1.

Step 3. You'll repeat Step 1, this time concentrating on the new thoughts you reported in Step 2, then finish as in Step 2.

Typically this cycle is repeated until your distress is reduced. Over the prescribed number of sessions, you may gain more insight into the way your traumatic event has affected you, change some of your behaviors, and be able to move forward more positively into the future.

Who Else Does EMDR Help?

You may be interested to know that, since the first clinical study of its effectiveness in 1989, EMDR has helped not only people with PTSD but also those with other types of mental health conditions. They include:

How Does EMDR Work?

EMDR is believed to work by building new connections in your memory between your traumatic memories and positive information, enabling the positive information to have more influence on your trauma-related thinking.

However, you should be aware that it is not yet certain how EMDR works. It may work in a  way similar to a technique called exposure therapy, but researchers are still uncertain.

In addition, there has been some criticism of the studies done to evaluate its effectiveness.

You can read more about eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy at the EMDR Institute website.

More Resources About PTSD Treatment

All About the Treatment of PTSD

Overview of Treatments for PTSD

How to Find a Therapist for Your PTSD

Questions to Ask Your Therapist

Sources:

Lilienfeld, S., Lynn, S., & Lohr, J. (2002). Science and Pseudoscience in Clinical Psychology. New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Lilienfeld, S. O. (Jan/Feb 1996). EMDR Treatment: Less Than Meets the Eye? Skeptical Inquirer.

Maxfield, L. (2002). Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing in the treatment of posttraumatic stress disorder. In C.R. Figley (Ed.), Brief Treatments for the Traumatized (pp. 148-170). Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

"What is EMDR? Frequent Questions." EMDR Institute, Inc. (2016).

"EMDR Evaluated Clinical Applications." EMDR Institute, Inc. (2016).

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