What is Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprocessing (EMDR)?

What is Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprocessing (EMDR)?

EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprocessing. It is a psychotherapy treatment that has been extensively researched and proven effective to help millions of people of all ages recover from both PTSD and C-PTSD and the problems they cause, like flashbacks, upsetting thoughts or images, hypervigilance and other symptoms.

EMDR uses eye movements and sometimes audio tones, or even small hand-held buzzers to repeatedly stimulate the left and ride sides (hemispheres) of your brain to properly process traumatic intense and debilitating memories into simply memories.

The goal of EMDR is to allow the person to achieve a complete state of emotional and mental health – they should be able to recall or discuss the event without having a response that results in a debilitating reaction. ‘Through EMDR, individuals safely reprocess traumatic information until it is no longer psychologically disruptive to their lives. Over time, exposure to traumatic memories will no longer induce negative feelings and distressing symptoms.’

Many studies have documented the effectiveness of EMDR therapy for traumas such as rape and sexual abuse, combat trauma, childhood trauma and neglect, life-threatening accidents, and the resulting PTSD and C-PTSD symptoms. Find out more about the effectiveness of EMDR here

One of the things many people really like about EMDR is that you don’t need to talk about your trauma.  People undergoing treatment are asked initially to only think about their traumatic experiences during a session – there’s no requirement to discuss them.  Given the reluctance and fear of many trauma survivors to talk about the details of their experience, this can be a hugely important benefit of EMDR over other treatment options. Find out more about what happens in an EMDR therapy session here

It’s useful to understand how trauma affects your brain, to then be able to understand how EMDR can be so effective in treating PTSD and C-PTSD. ‘When a person is involved in a traumatic event, they may feel overwhelmed and their brain may be unable to fully process what is going on. The memory of the event seems to become “stuck” so that it remains very intense and vivid. The person can re-experience what they saw, heard and smelt and the full force of the distress they felt whenever the memory comes to mind.

EMDR aims to help the brain “unstick” and reprocess the memory properly so that it is no longer so intense. It also helps to desensitise the person to the emotional impact of the memory, so that they can think about the event without experiencing such strong feelings.

It does this by asking the person to recall the traumatic event while they also move their eyes from side-to-side, hear a sound in each ear alternately, or feel a tap on each hand alternately. These side-to-side sensations seem to effectively stimulate the “stuck” processing system in the brain so that it can reprocess the information more like an ordinary memory, reducing its intensity. The effect may be similar to what occurs naturally during REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep, when your eyes move rapidly from side to side as the brain processes the events of the day.’

Due to the biological mechanisms involved in Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep, internal associations arise and the client begins to process the memory and disturbing feelings. In successful EMDR therapy, the meaning of painful events is transformed on an emotional level.  For instance, an assault victim shifts from feeling horror and self-blame to holding the firm belief that, “I survived it and I am strong.”  Unlike talk therapy, the insights clients gain in EMDR therapy result not so much from clinician interpretation, but from the client’s own accelerated intellectual and emotional processes.  The net effect is that clients conclude EMDR therapy feeling empowered by the very experiences that once debased them.  Their wounds have not just closed, they have transformed. As a natural outcome of the EMDR therapeutic process, the clients’ thoughts, feelings and behaviour are all robust indicators of emotional health and resolution—all without speaking in detail or doing homework used in other therapies.’ Find out more about how EMDR works, and the science behind it here.

Your history and specific problem will influence the number of sessions of EMDR that you’d need, but ‘repeated controlled studies have shown that a single trauma can be processed within 3 sessions in 80-90% of the participants’. In another study, ‘80% of multiple trauma victims no longer had PTSD after approximately 6 hours of treatment’. Another study, looking specifically at combat veterans, ‘reported that after 12 sessions 77% no longer had post-traumatic stress disorder’. Find out more about how many sessions you might need here and for information about EMDR for C-PTSD, read this page

EMDR weakens the effect of negative emotions and the ‘charge’ behind emotions when recalling the event. Before and after each EMDR treatment, your therapist will ask you to rate your level of distress. The hope is that your disturbing memories will become less disabling.

Please remember, these are not medical recommendations. Be sure to work with a professional to find the best methods for you. EMDR should always be delivered by properly trained therapists. 

How effective is EMDR?


Research has shown that EMDR can be very effective, very quickly in treating PTSD and C-PTSD. Read about some of the research that has been done in this area here .

What happens in an EMDR session?


Find out more about the different phases of EMDR treatment and how the sessions will differ as you progress.

Things to know before starting EMDR therapy


It’s important for people to go into EMDR therapy with an full understanding of what the treatment requires and entails. 

  • EMDR Institute

  • EMDR Association

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  • Carletto Sara, Borghi Martina, Bertino Gabriella, Oliva Francesco, Cavallo Marco, Hofmann Arne, Zennaro Alessandro, Malucchi Simona, Ostacoli LucaTreating Post-traumatic Stress Disorder in Patients with Multiple Sclerosis: A Randomized Controlled Trial Comparing the Efficacy of Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing and Relaxation Therapy Frontiers in Psychology VOL. 7 2016 Page 526 https://www.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fpsyg.2016.00526 DOI10.3389/fpsyg.2016.00526

  • Chen L, Zhang G, Hu M, Liang X. Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing versus cognitive-behavioral therapy for adult posttraumatic stress disorder: systematic review and meta-analysis. J Nerv Ment Dis. 2015 Jun;203(6):443-51. doi: 10.1097/NMD.0000000000000306. PMID: 25974059.

  • Chen Y-R, Hung K-W, Tsai J-C, Chu H, Chung M-H, Chen S-R, et al. (2014) Efficacy of Eye-Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing for Patients with Posttraumatic-Stress Disorder: A Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials. PLoS ONE 9(8): e103676. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0103676

  • Bisson, J., Roberts, N.P., Andrew, M., Cooper, R. & Lewis, C. (2013).  Psychological therapies for chronic post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in adults (Review). Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2013, DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD003388.pub4

  • Bradley, R., Greene, J., Russ, E., Dutra, L., & Westen, D. (2005).A multidimensional meta-analysis of psychotherapy for PTSD.  American Journal of Psychiatry, 162, 214-227.

  • Lee, C.W., & Cuijpers, P. (2013).  A meta-analysis of the contribution of eye movements in processing emotional memories. Journal of Behavior Therapy & Experimental Psychiatry, 44, 231-23

  • Seidler, G.H., & Wagner, F.E. (2006). Comparing the efficacy of EMDR and trauma-focused cognitive-behavioral therapy in the treatment of PTSD: a meta-analytic study. Psychological Medicine, 36,1515-1522.

  • Acarturk, C., Konuk, E., Cetinkaya, M., Senay, I., Sijbrandij, M., Gulen, B., & Cuijpers, P. (2016). The efficacy of eye movement desensitization and reprocessing for post-traumatic stress disorder and depression among Syrian refugees: Results of a randomized controlled trial. Psychological medicine46(12), 2583-2593

  • Raymond W. Gunter, Glen E. Bodner, How eye movements affect unpleasant memories: Support for a working-memory account, Behaviour Research and Therapy, Volume 46, Issue 8, 2008, Pages 913-931, ISSN 0005-7967,https://doi.org/10.1016/j.brat.2008.04.006.

  • Comparison of two treatments for traumatic stress: A community-based study of EMDR and prolonged exposure, Ironson, B. Freund, J. L. Strauss, J. Williams

  • Scheck MM, Schaeffer JA, Gillette C. Brief psychological intervention with traumatized young women: the efficacy of eye movement desensitization and reprocessing. J Trauma Stress. 1998 Jan;11(1):25-44. doi: 10.1023/A:1024400931106. PMID: 9479674.

  • PTSD in children quickly and effectively treatable within hours

  • EMDR Therapy for Anxiety, Panic, PTSD and Trauma

  • Adapting EMDR for Treating Complex PTSD Symptoms

  • Using EMDR to Find Your ‘Safe Place’ in Trauma Recovery

  • SAFE PLACE RESOURCE & ADAPTATIONS

  • EMDR Therapy: Breaking Down the Barriers

  • EMDR International Association

  • American Psychological Association

  • Here's What You Need To Know Before Your First EMDR Therapy Session

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Treatments for PTSD

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Traumatic events can be very difficult to come to terms with, but confronting and understanding your feelings and seeking professional help is often the only way of effectively treating PTSD. You can find out more in the links below, or here.