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How EMDR Works: Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy

Updated on September 8, 2017

Eye Movement Desensitization And Reprocessing

Francine Shapiro
Francine Shapiro | Source

History of the therapy

Francine Shapiro, from California, designed Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy (EMDR) in the 1980s. Professionals in the field of psychiatry and their patients were attracted by the guarantee of a single-session treatment for stress, substance abuse and phobias. Hence, several professionals are currently performing this treatment and saying good things about it.

However, there were a lot of critics too. It was said to be a fake treatment but Philadelphia psychologist, Arlene Goldman, proved them wrong and stood by the therapy. According to her, EMDR is best to use for immediate and discreet types of trauma like accident and rape.

How the therapy works in practice

The therapist instructs the client to hold memories of anxiety-provoking-stimuli. Then, the client is asked to follow the therapist’s finger movements or a moving object with their eyes. This part is similar to movies wherein it shows a person looking at a watch in hypnosis, moving side to side so that the eyes move back and forth. Dizzying the eyes is important to find out the effectiveness of later eye movements to activities such as distraction, relaxation, and synchronization of brain’s two hemispheres. Afterwards, the client is asked to report what thoughts, feelings, sensations, image or memory came up. This is repeated until desensitization is successful.

What the therapy wants to accomplish

“Process the client’s distressing memories, reduce its influence and help the client develop more adaptive coping mechanisms.”

The Role Of The Therapist

The role of the therapist is as a “guide” that leads to the client’s adaptive coping mechanisms.

EMDR AND PTSD. Eye Movement Desensitization And Reprocessing

Process Used In Therapy

Phase 1

In the first phase, the client is asked about his history and the therapist makes a treatment plan based on the target problems to be diminished.

Phase 2

It is important for the therapist to establish good relationship with the client and a safe place for the client. This will enable disclosure and avoid threats upon upsetting sessions.

Phase 3

An image of the target is identified by identifying a negative cognition and a positive cognition that is preferable to the negative cognition.

Phase 4

With the client focusing on the image, negative cognition and disturbing emotion or body sensation, the client is asked to follow the therapist’s finger or any moving object. Then, the client will be asked what came up including thoughts, feelings, physical sensation, image or memory.

Phase 5

This is the installation phase. It is possible that after phase IV, there is a change in positive cognition. New positive cognition can be introduced if the first positive is not valid anymore. Then, another eye movement will be done.

Phase VI

This is the body scan wherein the therapist checks if the client feels any pain, stress or discomfort.

Phase VII

This phase is debriefing of what has transpired.

Phase VIII

Re-evaluation will be done when the next session begins.

For which disorder it is best used

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing is usually used for problems caused by distressing life experiences. It is best for post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, phobias, sexual dysfunction, schizophrenia, panic disorder and eating disorder.



EMDR is a proven effective treatment method to handle bad experiences.

EMDR was developed in 1989 by Francine Shapiro to process traumatic events. Meanwhile, there is increasing scientific support that EMDR can also be used well with other problems and symptoms, such as anxiety disorders, the effects of multiple trauma and chronic pain. Even if someone suffers from low self-esteem, EMDR can be used as part of a treatment.

It is safe to say that 25 years after it was developed EMDR has become a helpful tool to deal with a wide range of problems.


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    • raymondphilippe profile image

      Raymond Philippe 5 years ago from The Netherlands

      Thanks for sharing your experience with EMDR with us. Much appreciated!

    • stephaniedas profile image

      Stephanie Das 5 years ago from Miami, US

      I actually had this treatment done to me by a wonderful therapist. I found it very helpful in getting through the trauma that was affecting me, and I must say, that if this treatment, combined with many other techniques and talk therapy, hadn't been used, I'd be a very different person today. Great article, I wasn't aware of how it worked.