What Is EMDR Therapy?

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What Is EMDR Therapy?

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy is a psychotherapy therapy technique that utilizes sensory input such as eye movements to help people recover from trauma.

As a therapeutic approach, EMDR is based on several theories of psychotherapy, including concepts of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). EMDR techniques are used to unblock emotional processes that have been stagnated by distress.

By unblocking your emotions, you can (in a sense) reprogram your brain. Then, you can begin to heal from the fear and pain associated with the trauma and emotional distress you have experienced. EMDR can also allow you to gain a new perspective, which can facilitate improved self-esteem and enhance your personal beliefs about your capabilities.

History of EMDR Therapy

EMDR was developed by psychologist Francine Shapiro in 1987 to help people deal with and heal from experiences that have caused emotional trauma. Research on and use of this method has continued to grow, making EMDR an increasingly popular technique in treating mental health disorders.


EMDR uses a number of techniques, including:

  • Eye movements
  • Hand tapping
  • Audio stimulation

EMDR techniques are performed by trained professionals who are also qualified to treat panic disorder, such as psychologists or mental health counselors. If you are currently seeing a therapist who is not trained in EMDR, you can ask them to provide you with a referral. EMDR practitioners can also be found through online directories.

Your doctor or therapist will be able to help you determine if EMDR is the right treatment option for your particular needs.


EMDR was initially used to treat trauma, but it is now used to treat a variety of mental health conditions. When used in the treatment of panic disorder, for example, your therapist may ask you to bring your attention to feared physical sensations or thoughts that are linked to your panic attacks. For instance, if driving in a car often leads to anxiety and panic attacks, EMDR may be able to help you remain calm before driving and feel safer while you're on the road.

You might find EMDR helpful if you have:

EMDR can be used on its own or in conjunction with other psychotherapy techniques (such as CBT) and medications.

How It Works

EMDR involves eight phases of treatment that focus on the past, the present, and the future and is designed to break any associations you have between certain circumstances and symptoms. Each phase helps you work through emotional distress and trauma, then learn skills to cope with current and future stress.

Treatment with EMDR can provide rapid relief. It even has the potential to help you begin to feel better after the first session. However, there is a great deal of variability in how individuals respond to EMDR.

Phase 1: History-Taking

The first phase involves getting your complete history. This could include painful memories, events, or experiences from your past, as well as your current stresses. Based on your history, you and your therapist will develop a treatment plan that targets specific memories or incidents.

At first, your work might be focused on your childhood. If you have a specific condition like panic disorder, you may be asked details about your panic attacks such as when they started, what your worst one was like, and when you had your most recent one.

Phase 2: Preparation

During this phase, your therapist will help you learn some ways to deal with stress and anxiety, such as doing mental exercises.

Phases 3 to 6: Assessment, Desensitization, Installation, and Body Scan

Phases 3 through 6 are where hard work is usually done. Here's a brief overview of what the sequence can look like.

  1. First, your therapist will have you choose one of the targets you determined in phase one. For instance, a particular memory.
  2. Next, you'll describe the visual picture you have in your head of that memory, as well as how it makes you feel, both physically and emotionally.
  3. You will also be asked to identify both a negative and a positive belief about yourself related to the mental picture of the memory.
  4. Then, you'll rate both of these beliefs according to how true they are.
  5. At this point, the EMDR stimulation takes place.

Phase 7: Closure

The 7th phase is the closure phase. During this phase, you and your therapist will discuss the positive steps you've made and how to keep them going on a daily basis.

Phase 8: Reevaluation

You and your therapist will continue to talk about your progress, look at your treatment goals, and see how well your goals have been met. At this point, you will also determine if you need to work through other targets you identified in phase one. During this phase, you and your therapist will also discuss ways to cope with current and future stress.

Impact of EMDR

EMDR is primarily used to overcome symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

EMDR has also been found to effectively treat other mood and anxiety disorders, including depression, phobias, and panic disorder.

EMDR is particularly effective for treating panic disorder, panic attacks, and agoraphobia when past traumatic experiences are contributing to your current symptoms.

What the Research Says

One small pilot study found that EMDR therapy was effective in treating PTSD and psychotic symptoms that arise from trauma. The treatment helped reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety as well as improving self-esteem. 

A study published in 2017 compared the effectiveness of EMDR to CBT in treating the symptoms of panic disorder and improving patients' quality of life determined that EMDR is just as effective as CBT.

In 2017, a review of published studies on the effectiveness of EMDR for treating trauma-associated symptoms in people with psychosis, unipolar depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorders, substance use disorders, and chronic back pain found that EMDR does improve symptoms.

The review also found evidence that EMDR may even help improve the other non-traumatic symptoms found in mood disorders and may be useful as an additional treatment for people who have chronic pain.


During an EMDR session for panic disorder in phases 3 to 6, your therapist will ask you to recall the chosen target memory or trauma, as discussed above.

As you picture the target memory in your head, as well as the negative belief about yourself and the physical sensations you feel, your therapist will have you move your eyes from side to side.

  • To help you focus on moving your eyes, your therapist will hold up their first three fingers and move them in a bilateral (two-sided) motion for your eyes to follow.
  • Instead of eye movements, you may be asked to perform hand or finger tapping or to wear a set of headphones to listen to tones that alternate from your right ear to your left ear.
  • You will continue to focus on the traumatic feelings or memories while you participate in these bilateral eye movements, taps, or tones.

Once you're finished with the EMDR stimulation, your therapist will instruct you to clear your mind and discuss any insights, thoughts, memories, feelings, or images that came to mind.

Repetition Is Key

Your therapist will take you through the stimulation again depending on whether you're starting to feel positive physical sensations or you are still experiencing negative ones. The stimulation will be different if you're feeling positive, as it helps reinforce the positive sensations or thoughts. Repetition is the key until you are no longer experiencing distress from that memory or incident.

When you aren't experiencing distress related to a certain memory any longer, your therapist will have you decide if the positive belief you stated about yourself at the beginning is still what you would choose and, if not, how you want to change it. You'll also learn to apply and focus on this positive belief in the future when you find yourself in a distressing situation by "installing" it with eye movements.

Therapists who use EMDR often assign homework to help maintain progress between sessions. Examples of homework assignments include:

  • You may be asked to try a self-help technique that requires your imagination to envision a peaceful environment, such as visualization.
  • Imagery desensitization may be practiced between sessions, allowing you to picture what it would be like to gradually face your fears.
  • EMDR practitioners also often suggest keeping a daily journal that tracks your progress and the relaxation techniques you learn.

Potential Pitfalls

EMDR is considered safe with relatively few side effects. EMDR can be effective, but that does not mean that it is not without any potential drawbacks. The following are some possible pitfalls of this approach:

  • It's a complex and controversial technique.
  • It's not totally clear how it works.
  • It's not effective for everyone.
  • It requires multiple sessions.
  • You might experience a heightened awareness that lasts beyond your therapy session

Thinking about traumatic events can be distressing, particularly at the outset of therapy. Work with your therapist to find ways to cope with your feelings as you go forward with therapy.

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Article Sources
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