What is EMDR Therapy and How Does EMDR Therapy Work?
Updated: Jan 12
Blog / What is EMDR Therapy and How Does EMDR Therapy Work?
Prefer to watch the video (9:38)?
What is EMDR Therapy?
EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, and you can already tell just by the name that this isn't like your average talk therapy.
EMDR Therapy is something that's being used by therapists around the world to help millions of people who are struggling with anxiety, depression, substance use, grief, PTSD, trauma, and other issues.
It's actually something that I use with my clients, especially those struggling with trauma and PTSD. There's a lot of research showing just how effective EMDR therapy is, especially when it comes to trauma and PTSD.
This is something that you can do in person or online through telehealth sessions. One other amazing thing about EMDR is that it doesn't take a million sessions. It takes fewer sessions, usually. In most cases, we don't even have to talk in great detail about past disturbing memories.
I use the phrase ‘past disturbing event’ more than I use the word ‘trauma’. Some people struggle with the idea ‘did I live through trauma or did I not?’
Instead, I’m more likely to ask clients ‘when you do think back to that past disturbing memory, do you feel disturbed now?’ If so, this might be something that we use EMDR Therapy for.
Some examples of past disturbing events can be things like surviving a tornado, a shooting, or a scary car accident. It can be something like being physically attacked or being harshly punished or belittled by a caregiver.
Past disturbing events can also be something that we've done to someone else, like if we have this disturbing memory about bullying someone in the fourth grade.
Also, past disturbing events can be something totally socially acceptable like if we have this disturbing memory about a really scary surgery that we had.
It's important to know that sometimes, when we think back to something in the past, it can be quite normal for it to still feel a little disturbing. For example, if I'm working with someone whose grandparent died about 10 years ago they might say, ‘yeah, it still feels a little sad to think back to that.’
It's different if that same person in the same situation says ‘yeah, I feel really guilty right now’ and then they start sobbing heavily. This might be something that we work on in EMDR Therapy.
Simply put, EMDR Therapy helps people to remove the emotional charge attached to memories and helps make it so that people, places, or things that are triggering are no longer triggers.
EMDR can help people transform their beliefs about themselves and their environment. It can also assist in removing the less comfortable or painful sensations that might be attached to past disturbing events.
Let's say that I'm working with someone who's been through cyberbullying. Every now and then, they have this memory that pops up of something that happened three months ago where they see their friends making fun of them on Facebook.
They notice that when this memory pops up, they feel really anxious and embarrassed. Even when they just hear someone talking about Facebook, they feel the same way.
They notice that they start avoiding being on social media altogether, and they start to believe ‘I'm not good enough.’ In general, they become aware of how they feel tense in their neck and their face, more often.
If I were to use EMDR with this person, part of the goal is making it so that when this memory pops up that they are no longer triggered by it. When they hear someone talking about Facebook, that is also no longer triggering.
Another goal would be to help them feel comfortable getting on social media again and believe ‘I am good enough’, instead of ‘I'm not good enough’.
They would notice that their body feels more comfortable, especially in the area of the neck and the face. It feels more relaxed. They also feel more confident about what they might do if a similar situation took place in the future.
How Does EMDR Therapy work?
So far, I’ve addressed the question ‘what is EMDR Therapy’, so now I’ll answer the question ‘how does EMDR Therapy work?’
Classic EMDR involves repeatedly moving the eyes left and right while someone focuses on any memories, sensations, emotions, thoughts or other things, with the help of a trained EMDR Therapist.
The therapy itself can look quite strange, and you may be thinking ‘why would we want to move our eyes repeatedly left and right? How is that supposed to help with anything?’
The answer actually comes from something almost every single one of us does, every single night. We actually make these same eye movements during a phase of our sleep called rapid eye movement sleep (REM sleep). This is the phase of sleep where most of our dreams are occurring.
During REM sleep, our arms and our legs are actually temporarily paralyzed so that we don't accidentally act out our dreams. This is the phase of sleep where our brain is thought to be doing more heavy processing of our memories.
When EMDR Therapy is used with the same eye movements, we're just activating the function of REM sleep to help us more fully process any information that might be stuck. This leads us to another question ‘how does information get stuck in our brain?’
Simply put, if we're experiencing something very overwhelming in the moment, the brain is trying its hardest to process that information. The event may be so disturbing at the time that the information doesn't get processed correctly.
During such an event, our brains are working as hard as possible to memorize information that can help us survive. In the instance of a shooting, the brain may attempt to memorize the face of a shooter.
Sometimes, less important information gets mixed in, like the sound of a gunshot. When you think of the sound of a gunshot, it can make sense how someone can be triggered when they hear the sound of a car backfiring or even the sound of fireworks and experience a flashback of the shooting.
The brain may try to more fully process the information throughout the day or even at night, when someone is sleeping. That’s where nightmares about past events can come up.
Unfortunately, when the brain attempts this, it's so overwhelming that the individual feels like they're reliving the event, and the information just stays stuck. They can't fully digest it.
This is where the help of a trained EMDR Therapist comes in. We can get that stuck information unstuck and help the body resume its natural healing process, much like it's able to heal a cut on your hand.
EMDR doesn't always involve using the eyes. There are other ways to use what is called bilateral stimulation, which basically means stimulating one side of the body and then the next, repeatedly.
Other ways this can be done is with the use of sounds and more tactile things, like vibrations or tapping. If sounds are used, the individual wears headphones so that they can hear a tone play in one ear and then the other ear, repeatedly left and right.
Tapping may be especially useful if EMDR Therapy is being used within an online therapy session.
EMDR Therapists may also have their clients use a tool called tappers, using vibrations for bilateral simulation. They basically feel like a cell phone vibrating in the hand, so one handheld device would vibrate in one hand and another handheld device would vibrate in the other hand, repeatedly left and right.
One interesting thing about EMDR is that we can use multiple forms of bilateral stimulation, at the same time. This can involve using the eyes while also listening to the tones, or maybe it’s listening to the tones while feeling the vibrations through the tappers.
EMDR Therapists will often try to start folks off with eye movements. This is because the use of eye movements for bilateral stimulation is more backed by research. Therefore, the use of eye movements is commonly thought to be the most effective.
This isn't the case for everyone that the eye movements are most effective. In fact, someone might feel much more comfortable with another form of bilateral stimulation that it simply makes it more effective for them.
Once we find a form that's effective and comfortable for someone, we usually stick with that form of bilateral stimulation. We won't change it from day to day, and we’ll instead just stick with the same form over multiple sessions.
Does EMDR Therapy work?
Yes. EMDR Therapy has helped changed the lives of millions of people, worldwide. It's one of the most effective and well researched evidenced-based treatments for trauma and PTSD. See a simple breakdown of the research by following this link.
How much does EMDR Therapy cost?
With some therapist, the cost of EMDR Therapy can be higher. For example, a therapist may normally charge 175 per hour but charge 200 for EMDR Therapy. As an EMDR Therapist myself, I charge 150 for all types of online therapy, including online EMDR Therapy.
Can you do EMDR Therapy online?
Yes. EMDR can be just as effective online as it is in person. All forms of bilateral stimulation can be used in an online EMDR Therapy session. Curious what that looks like? Watch my video on Online EMDR Therapy by following this link.
How do I start doing EMDR Therapy?
If you're an Arizona teen or adult open to private pay for online EMDR Therapy, follow this link to set up your free 15-minute consultation.
Otherwise, go to PsychologyToday.com, select 'Find a Therapist' at the top of the page, enter your city or zip code, select the 'Types of Therapy' filter, and select 'EMDR'.
If you were asking 'what is EMDR Therapy' or 'how does EMDR Therapy work', I hope you found this helpful. If you're thinking about doing EMDR, I hope that I helped you feel a little more comfortable about possibly getting into it.
What's something you find interesting about EMDR? Let me know in the comments below.
Hi. My name is Bryan and I'm a therapist for overthinkers.
I help teens & adults of Arizona get rid of the worrying, stress, and anxiety that just makes life harder.
Sound like you? Schedule your free 15-minute consultation by following this link.
Bryan Gower, MC, LPC