Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing

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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 an externals stimulus 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: 

  • The past: Distressing, trauma-related events, and memories
  • The present: Current situations that are causing you distress
  • The future: Development of skills and attitudes you can use to take positive actions

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, decrease the distress associated with the traumatic memories, 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 has been used in other types of mental health conditions. They include:

  • Combat veterans from World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan
  • People with phobias, panic disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), and generalized anxiety disorder
  • Crime victims, police officers, and firefighters
  • People suffering extreme grief
  • Sexual assault victims
  • People affected by family, marital and sexual dysfunction
  • Adults and adolescents diagnosed with depression

How It Works

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

EMDR 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.

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

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