What is EMDR?

EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, sometimes also called ‘eye movement therapy’) is a type of psychotherapy that is designed to treat emotional distress caused by difficult or traumatic experiences. It is one of the leading therapies for PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) and has been used to treat anxiety and severe cases of depression, as well.

Compared with more traditional forms of psychotherapies, studies show that EMDR achieves the desired results of relieving the patient of emotional distress faster, sometimes in as little as three sessions with the therapist. Moreover, EMDR is less intrusive than CBT (Cognitive Behaviour Therapy) which requires the frequent recollection of the distressing event.

During the course of an EMDR treatment, the patient will also be asked to remember traumatic experiences, but only to a certain degree. During these recollections, the therapist will direct the individual’s eye movement to divert the attention away from the memory of the trauma. The general idea behind this technique is that through a series of recollection and diversion, the patient will learn how to strengthen their psychological defences against the distressing emotions caused by the memory.

Reliving traumatic experiences is exhausting for anyone and can be even downright frightening for some. The goal of EMDR therapy is to teach the patient how to process the memories differently so that it doesn’t elicit strong psychological responses like anxiety or fear. 

What are the benefits of EMDR?

PTSD in both children and adults are commonly treated by talking therapies, prescription medication, or the combination of the two. One of the most common psychotherapies used in these cases is CBT, which is often supported with the use of antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications such as benzodiazepines.

Recent research shows that certain psychotherapies work better than others. For the treatment of PTSD, both CBT and EMDR are deemed to be the most effective. Although the latter is less common than behavioural therapy, EMDR has several advantages over trauma-focused CBT as detailed in the 2013 World Health Organization practice guidelines. 

Eye movement therapy doesn’t require a patient:

  • to conjure detailed descriptions of the traumatic event
  • challenge existing beliefs about the trauma
  • prolong the patient’s exposure to the distressing memory

These benefits make EMDR a more suitable option for individuals who struggle with particularly painful or difficult memories. 

How does EMDR work?

At its very core, EMDR uses bilateral stimulation to help a patient reprocess traumatic memories. Bilateral stimulation, such as following a moving object or light with your eyes or alternate tapping of hands on the shoulders, is used by the therapist as a way to divert the person from the memory that they are recalling. The diversion teaches the brain to focus its efforts on processing the memory instead of summoning the negative emotions that the patient has attached with it. Over time, the emotions associated with the memory fades.

The EMDR method

EMDR therapies are divided into 8 phases spread throughout 12 sessions. Each round of therapy commences with the proper assessment of the patient, followed by the identification of the memory to be targeted in the treatment phase. The structure of the treatment itself will vary from person to person to accommodate their personal circumstances.

While EMDR is primarily used for treating PTSD, it is also a treatment option for people suffering from severe anxiety or panic at

While EMDR is primarily used to treat PTSD, it is also a viable option for treating severe anxiety or panic attacks. To date, there are no studies that refute its effectiveness for treating other psychological disorders.

Phase 1: Patient history and treatment planning

During phase 1, the therapist will examine the patient’s history and determine where to begin the treatment process. The patient will be required to talk about their trauma and the therapist will guide them in exploring the emotions and memories associated with it.

Phase 2: Preparation

Before identifying the specific memories to treat, the therapist will help the patient learn several techniques to manage the stress induced by the memories. The methods may vary but stress management in the form of guided breathing and mindfulness are the most common.  

Phase 3: Memory identification

The therapist will now identify the specific memories that result in stressful emotions. These are the memories that the patient will focus on when the treatment phase begins. The goal is to weaken the emotional impact of these memories, effectively eliminating PTSD. During this step, the patient will also be asked to talk about the emotions associated with each target memory.

Phases 4-7: Treatment

Phase 4 is when the real work begins. The patient is asked to recall the target memories identified in the previous phase and to focus on the negative emotions they bring. 

Then, the therapist applies EMDR techniques and creates a moment of diversion by asking the patient to follow a series of eye movements or other forms of bilateral stimulation. Again, this will be different from patient to patient but it is common that a wide combination of movements is used.

After the bilateral stimulation, the therapist will instruct the patient to let their mind go blank and to pay attention to the thoughts and feelings that come to them while in this state. The patient will then be asked to communicate these thoughts and feelings to the therapist who will guide them to either stay with that memory or to move on to another.

If the patient becomes distressed at this stage, the therapist will help them move away from the memory and come back to the present.

Phase 8: Evaluation

In the final phase of the therapy, the patient will evaluate their own progress based on the sessions they have finished. The therapist will do the same and will compare both evaluations before deciding if the patient needs another round of treatment. 

How much does EMDR cost?

The cost of EMDR treatments will vary from one health care provider to another. In private clinics, the treatment can cost around £85 per session. Please keep in mind that if you choose to seek treatment through the general health care system, it may not be possible for you to receive EMDR since it will be up to them to decide which treatment is best for your condition. In some cases, the patient’s preference is taken into account but there is no guarantee. This is why it’s best to go to a private clinic for EMDR treatments. 

When looking for a private clinic to provide you with EMDR treatment, it’s important to seek one with a qualified therapist. In the UK, you can go to EMDR UK to find accredited therapists near you.

Why is EMDR effective?

EMDR was founded by Dr Francine Shapiro, an American psychologist, who stumbled onto the possibility of using eye movements to desensitize a person from the negative emotions caused by traumatic memories. During a stroll at the park, Dr Shapiro realized that certain eye movements reduced the emotional impact of her own unpleasant memories. Using this experience, she began experimenting with the effects of eye movement on similar subjects. 

This lead to a case study and controlled study where she assigned 22 individuals who suffer from traumatic memories two types of treatments: half received EMDR while the other half received a similar procedure that used imagery instead of eye movements. The results of the study ascertained that EMDR was more effective in reducing the distressing emotions caused by traumatic memories and left the subjects feeling more hopeful about recovery. 

EMDR was first used on soldiers who returned home from the war in Vietnam. The treatments quickly proved to be successful in relieving the symptoms of war-related PTSD. Later on, it was also discovered to be effective in treating women suffering from PTSD caused by sexual violence. Today, EMDR is used to treat a wide array of traumas and has been receiving scientific backing in recent years. 

The exact mechanics as to why EMDR is so effective isn’t always easy to answer. More studies about how the brain works are needed to get more definitive answers. However, the theory stands that if traumatic memories cause unwanted emotions, then a self-examination of these memories and emotions paired with the rational thought processes is a viable solution to the problem. A large part of EMDR relies on the patient’s mindfulness and self-examination during the treatment phase.

People rarely examine their own emotions in an objective manner. But with the help of EMDR, this becomes possible. And because it is not always easy for people to confront their own emotions, being guided by a therapist is an important part of the process. Many patients who obtained successful results from EMDR continue using the self-examination methods that they have learned even after treatment. That said, EMDR can be seen as a skill that a therapist helps in honing.

What is the success rate of EMDR?

Since the technique was developed in 1989, more than 20,000 mental health professionals have trained to use EMDR. It is considered a safe and effective therapy that requires less effort from the patient when compared with other traditional psychotherapies and has none of the side effects that can be caused when treating with prescription medication alone. 

Despite its growing success as evidenced in multiple studies, there is still a rather significant body of practitioners who debate its effectiveness.

EMDR for children

EMDR is not only used for treating adults. It is also effective in helping children and adolescents with PTSD. Traumatic events tend to have a more profound effect on children and adolescents because they lack the life experiences that allow most adults to create a defence to protect their mind. 

With guided therapy and EMDR techniques, children can learn how to reduce the negative psychological impact caused by a traumatic event at its early stages. This improves the prognosis of their mental health as they venture into adulthood. The earlier the trauma is managed, the less the risk that the anxiety or PTSD will worsen over time.

EMDR training

The basic qualification for EMDR training is to be a licensed psychologist, psychotherapist or psychiatrist first, followed by basic courses that lead to an EMDR certification. The basic EMDR course itself consists of two modules that will be completed in a total of eight days. 

After you’ve received your EMDR certificate, you can choose to specialize in the specific conditions or patients you want to treat. EMDR certifications obtained in Sweden and in the UK are in accordance with the guidelines of EMDR Europe.

EMDR for anxiety and other psychological problems

EMDR is used primarily in the treatment of PTSD, but the therapy has also shown success in treating many cases of anxiety. 

Because the basic tenets of EMDR are recognizing one’s emotions and understanding how memories cause negative emotional responses, the method can be applied to treat a myriad of psychological disorders including depressions, anxiety and OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder). 

Another popular form of psychotherapy, CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy), shares the same methods as EMDR so it’s easy to hypothesize that both therapies can be equally effective in treating the same array of disorders. 

To date, the research on EMDR is limited to PTSD, but a scientific consensus about its usage for other psychological issues is growing. In the future, it is possible to see the combined use of CBT and EMDR in the mental health space.

Last updated at: 2021.05.04