What Is EMDR? How Does It Work?….and many more questions.

Do you find yourself trapped in your own brain?  Is a distressing memory stuck, replaying over and over?  Do you intellectually know that you are not to blame for what has happened, but continue to struggle with negative beliefs about yourself?  Do you react one way, wishing you could react differently, more appropriate or positive? Would you like for that traumatizing situation to become a distant memory?  If you answered yes to any of the above questions, EMDR therapy could be beneficial for you. 

The human brain routinely manages new information and experiences, appropriately processing and storing the information. However, when something out of the ordinary occurs and the brain is overwhelmed by a distressing event or cumulative distressing events, the natural coping mechanisms can become overloaded. This overloading can result in the distressing events becoming stuck, creating emotional wounds.

Research shows that the brain can heal from emotional wounds just as the body recovers from physical wounds. When you cut your hand, your body works to repair it. If the wound becomes infected or repeated injuries occur, the wound will not heal. But, if the wound is cleaned out, it can heal properly. EMDR suggests a similar process with the brain. The brain, like the body, naturally works to repair its wounds. When a disturbing event occurs, an infection can cause the emotional wound to become inflamed and can cause intense suffering. Once the infection is cleaned out, healing can resume. Using EMDR therapy protocols and procedures, therapists can help clients activate these natural healing processes.

8 Phases of Treatment

EMDR therapy is an eight-phase treatment: history-taking, preparation, assessment, desensitization, installation, body scan, closure, and reevaluation.  Eye movements, or bilateral stimulations, are used during the reprocessing phases.  The therapist will direct eye movements back and forth across the client’s field of vision.  It is hypothesized that the bilateral stimulation in EMDR therapy works similarly to REM sleep, the active sleep stage characterized by rapid eye movements, low muscle tone, and vivid dreams. REM sleep is believed to be when the brain reorganizes itself by forming new connections between brain cells, storing relevant information, and cleaning itself of useless information.

When distressing events occur and the brain is overwhelmed, the person’s experiences (images, thoughts, feelings, and sensations) are stored in the same form it was initially experienced. When these stuck memories go untreated, these initial feelings and body sensations can automatically arise, coloring our perceptions of similar present situations. A rape victim may continue experiencing the fear or have visions of the perpetrators face years after the rape. Through the bilateral stimulations, these experiences can be processed, sorted out, and stored appropriately. Effective EMDR therapy will help the rape victim to continue to live life without constant fear, anxiety, and recurring flashbacks; rather, the person will have more appropriate and healthy thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Because the wounds have been cleaned out, new connections are allowed to be made. Often, clients walk away from EMDR therapy feeling empowered with new positive core beliefs about themselves. Inherently, the emotional wounds have not just healed, but they have also been transformed.

If you have experienced trauma, distressing events, emotional difficulty, or just find yourself stuck in your thoughts and behaviors, I encourage you to seek an EMDR trained therapist.

Rebel Buersmeyer
Licensed Marital & Family Therapist
EMDR Therapist (in Training)


What is EMDR?

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing is a psychotherapy treatment discovered, developed, and termed by Francine Shapiro, PH.D.  It was originated to reduce negative emotions associated with memories of distressing events.  A three-pronged protocol is utilized to address 1) memories of past experiences, 2) present triggers, and 3) desired responses for future situations.   The goal is to establish understanding that will lead to healthy behaviors and interactions.

What is an EMDR session like

There are 8 phases of EMDR treatment: 1) history, 2) preparation, 3) assessment, 4) desensitization, 5) installation, 6) body scan, 7) closure, and 8) reevaluation.  The length of time spent on each phase varies from client to client.  Phases 1-3 focus on history taking, assessing client readiness, evaluating and teaching stress management skills, and setting up the reprocessing phases. Eye movements, or bilateral stimulations, are used during the reprocessing phases, phases 4-6.  The therapist will alternate between directing eye movements back and forth and obtaining feedback from the client.  Feedback consists of new information, images, emotions, and body sensations experienced during the eye movements. To ensure client stability, each processing session will be debriefed; and the client will be encouraged to complete a relaxation exercise (phase 7).  In the last phase, client’s progress, chosen memory, and remaining memories will be evaluated.

How does EMDR work?

EMDR is guided by Shapiro’s Adaptive Information Processing model (AIP).  AIP suggests that memory networks, or the patterns in which memories are associated, are the root of health and pathology.   When an experience is successfully processed, the memory is adaptively stored in the brain.  We can then better understand past experiences; and we are better able to handle future similar situations.  However, when the brain is overwhelmed, it stores the disturbing event, and the accompanying images, emotions, beliefs, and physical sensations, in a memory network that is isolated and prevented from connecting with more useful, adaptive networks.  Consequently, present day situations tend to trigger these isolated memory networks, creating PTSD symptoms, as well as, symptoms of other mental disorders. When EMDR processing begins, new information comes to mind, appropriate connections are made, and disturbing memories are unlocked and released.   As a result, emotional distress and problematic symptoms are eliminated, insights occur, and new learning emerges.

What problems can be helped by EMDR?

In addition to its use for traumatic experiences, studies show a high degree of effectiveness with the following populations:

Phobias                                                       Depression                                                   Attachment Disorder

Panic Disorder                                          Conduct Problems                                      Self-Esteem

Generalized Anxiety Disorder               Grief and Mourning                                   Body Dysmorphic Disorder

Sexual Dysfunction                                  Pedophilia                                                    Psychotic Disorders

Chronic Pain                                              Migraine Headaches                                  Phantom Limb Pain

Is EMDR effective?

  • Over 30 randomized controlled trials support the use of EMDR therapy with a wide range of trauma presentations.
  • EMDR therapy is considered “A” level treatment for trauma recommended by the World-Health Organization, Department of Veterans Affairs, and Department of Defense.
  • The current treatment guidelines of the American Psychiatric Association and the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies designate EMDR as an effective treatment for post traumatic stress.

How is EMDR different from traditional therapy?

Traditional therapy focuses on shifting emotions, thoughts, and responses resulting from disturbing experiences; whereas, EMDR focuses on changing the way in which a memory is stored, thus reducing and eliminating the problematic symptoms.  The insights gained in EMDR therapy result from the client’s own intellectual and emotional processes, rather than from a therapist’s interpretation. The therapist will facilitate self-healing by intervening as little as possible.  The therapist will be more direct than traditional therapy; and little empathy and active listening will be offered during the processing phases.  However, the therapist will continually assess and support the client.  Unlike other trauma-focused therapies, EMDR does not include prolonged exposure or detailed descriptions of the disturbing memories; rather, the therapist needs just enough information to create the memories to process.

Is EMDR safe?

EMDR is considered to be safe with fewer side effects than many prescription medications.  It is the client’s brain doing the healing and the client is the one in control.  However, there are some aspects to be mindful of with EMDR.  Some clients may experience high levels of emotion, vivid images, and intense sensations as unresolved memories surface. As uncomfortable as this may be, it is best to allow these experiences to process through.  The therapist will continually be assessing the client and will debrief at the close of each processing.  The client may continue experiencing memories, flashbacks, dreams, feelings, or sensations between sessions. Containment exercises and self-control/ soothing strategies will be developed to utilize during and between sessions.

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