PTSD Treatment: What is EMDR and How Does EMDR Work?

January 21, 2016 Jami DeLoe

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy as treatment for PTSD is very effective for some PTSD sufferers. Find out about EMDR here.

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy is a posttraumatic stress disorder treatment. Treatment for posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can be as varied as the types of trauma that causes it, and what works for one person may not be what works for another. In my experience with PTSD recovery, I found relief from my symptoms with eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy. EMDR is a powerful and effective PTSD therapy that helps the brain to reprocess past traumas differently, relieving the PTSD sufferer from often debilitating symptoms like flashbacks, nightmares and panic attacks.

How Does EMDR Work?

When a person experiences a traumatic event, it is sometimes too much for the brain to process normally. When this happens, the memories of the event are stored in such a way that when the person thinks about what happened, or is triggered in some way, he or she feels the same sights, sounds, thoughts and feeling that accompanied the trauma originally. In other words, it feels as if the trauma is actually happening again in the present moment. These flashbacks can cause extreme anxiety and are often very disruptive to a person's everyday activities. EMDR may help reduce PTSD symptoms and greatly improve the lives of trauma sufferers.

Simply put, EMDR takes those locked up, unprocessed memories, and helps the brain process them normally. This reprocessing doesn't change or diminish the memories, but it does take away the feeling of reliving the event. The memories of the trauma are then stored in the brain the same way that other normal memories are. This offers the PTSD sufferer great relief from the emotion and anxiety previously felt when remembering the traumatic event.

What Is an EMDR Session Like?

An EMDR session is much different than typical talk therapy sessions (When Talk Therapy Fails To Heal PTSD). It involves a Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy as treatment for PTSD is very effective for some PTSD sufferers. Find out about EMDR here.therapist talking you through a traumatic event while you rapidly move your eyes back and forth. The therapist may have you watch a device that has a horizontal row of lights that move back and forth, or he or she may simply have you concentrate on watching them move his or her finger, or another object, in the same motion. The left-right eye movements in EMDR therapy are a form of “bilateral stimulation.” Other forms of bilateral stimulation used by EMDR therapists include alternating bilateral sound using headphones and alternating tactile stimulation using a handheld device that vibrates or taps to the back of the patient’s hands. As you recall the trauma, the bilateral stimulation causes your brain to reprocess the memory and store it correctly, such that the negative thoughts and emotions disappear.

EMDR Was the Right Choice for Me

So far in my PTSD recovery, EMDR has been the type of treatment that is most effective in the shortest amount of time. I also use medication and have done lots of talk therapy as part of my treatment, and while both of those have been effective, it took a much longer time to fully feel their benefits.

In my next post, I will tell you about my own EMDR experience. Hopefully it will help you decide if it might be right for you.

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APA Reference
DeLoe, J. (2016, January 21). PTSD Treatment: What is EMDR and How Does EMDR Work?, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 24 from

Author: Jami DeLoe

Jami DeLoe is a freelance writer and addiction blogger. She is an advocate for mental health awareness and addiction recovery and is a recovering alcoholic herself. Find Jami DeLoe on her blog, Sober GraceTwitter, and Facebook.

January, 23 2016 at 9:37 pm

I know when I have elevated GAD, the brain does not function normally. Reasoning and cognitive skills go down the drain fast. Then comes paranoia. A person must learn how to control their thinking and environment as much as possible. As the saying goes, 'You are what you think'.

Patti Levin
January, 22 2016 at 12:58 pm

As a recently retired psychologist, I used EMDR therapy as my primary psychotherapy treatment and I've also personally had EMDR therapy for anxiety, panic, grief, and “small t” trauma. As a client, EMDR worked extremely well and also really fast. As an EMDR therapist, and in my (now retired) role as a facilitator who trained other therapists in EMDR therapy (certified by the EMDR International Association and trained by the EMDR Institute, both of which I strongly recommend in an EMDR therapist) I have used EMDR therapy successfully with panic disorders, PTSD, anxiety, depression, grief, body image, phobias, distressing memories, bad dreams, and many other problems. It's a very gentle method with no significant "down-side" so that in the hands of a professional EMDR therapist, there should be no freak-outs or worsening of day-to-day functioning.
EMDR therapy is considered a first-line treatment for trauma by organizations such as ISTSS (International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies), the American Psychiatric Association, the American Psychological Association, the Department of Veteran Affairs, the Department of Defense, the Departments of Health in Northern Ireland, UK, Israel, the Netherlands, France, and other countries and organizations. There are 35 randomized controlled (and 20 nonrandomized) studies that have been conducted on EMDR therapy in the treatment of trauma to date. A randomized controlled study is the gold standard for evidence-based therapy, and for any research. And more excellent research now on the role of eye movements, mechanism of action, and other Randomized Controlled Studies, not only on trauma and PTSD, but also on the use of EMDR therapy with generalized anxiety disorder, treatment of distressful experiences that fail to meet the criteria for PTSD, dental phobia, depression, body dysmorphic disorder, chronic phantom limb pain, panic disorder with agoraphobia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and peer verbal abuse.
The World Health Organization published Guidelines for the management of conditions that are specifically related to stress: Trauma-focused CBT and EMDR are the only therapies recommended for children, adolescents and adults with PTSD. "Like CBT with a trauma focus, EMDR therapy aims to reduce subjective distress and strengthen adaptive cognitions related to the traumatic event. Unlike CBT with a trauma focus, EMDR does not involve (a) detailed descriptions of the event, (b) direct challenging of beliefs, (c) extended exposure, or (d) homework." (Geneva, WHO, 2013)
One of the initial EMDR therapy phases (Phase 2) involves preparing for memory processing or desensitization (memory processing or desensitization - phases 3-6 - is often what is referred to as "EMDR" which is actually an 8-phase method of psychotherapy). In this phase resources are "front-loaded" so that you have a "floor" or "container" to help with processing the really hard stuff, as well as creating strategies if you're triggered in everyday life. In Phase 2 you learn a lot of great coping strategies and self-soothing techniques which you can use during EMDR processing or anytime you feel the need.
In phase 2 you learn how to access a “Safe or Calm Place” which you can use at ANY TIME during EMDR processing (or on your own) if it feels scary, or too emotional, too intense. One of the key assets of EMDR therapy is that YOU, the client, are in control NOW, even though you weren’t in the past, during traumatic events. You NEVER need re-live an experience or go into great detail, ever! You NEVER need to go through the entire memory. YOU can decide to keep the lights (or the alternating sounds and/or tactile pulsars, or the waving hand, or any method of bilateral stimulation that feels okay to you) going, or stop them, whichever helps titrate – measure and adjust the balance or “dose“ of the processing. During EMDR processing there are regular “breaks” and you can control when and how many but the therapist should be stopping the bilateral stimulation every 25-50 passes of the lights to ask you to take a deep breath and say just a bit of what you’re noticing, anything different, any changes. The breaks help keep a “foot in the present” while you’re processing the past. Again, and I can’t say this enough, YOU ARE IN CHARGE so YOU can make the process tolerable. And your therapist should be experienced in the EMDR therapy techniques that help make it the gentlest and safest way to detoxify bad life experiences and build resources.
Grounding exercises are essential. You can use some of the techniques in Dr. Shapiro's new book "Getting Past Your Past: Take Control of Your Life with Self-Help Techniques from EMDR." Dr. Shapiro is the founder/creator of EMDR but all the proceeds from the book go to two charities: the EMDR Humanitarian Assistance Program and the EMDR Research Foundation). The book is an easy read, helps you understand what's "pushing" your feelings and behavior, helps you connect the dots from past experiences to current life. Also gives lots of really helpful ways that are used during EMDR therapy to calm disturbing thoughts and feelings.
I can't say enough good things about EMDR therapy. It's changed my life both as a person/consumer, and as a therapist. It has been so satisfying to have someone come in for help and then to witness them get through their issues and finish therapy relatively quickly (compared to regular talk therapy, it's like night and day). I am both humbled by and grateful for this wonderful method that heals suffering.

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