What Is EMDR Therapy? Definition, Side-Effects and Benefits

EMDR therapy is a short-term treatment mainly used with trauma patients. Learn the benefits, side-effects, and dangers of EMDR therapy, on HealthyPlace.

EMDR therapy is a short-term treatment that can help people reprocess and work through trauma. It helps the client stay present in their body while the therapist uses EMDR techniques to reframe the traumatic event or incident. Most people undergo EMDR therapy in addition to regular talking therapy; many find it helpful, but there can be side-effects. Let’s examine the effectiveness of EMDR, as well as the reported benefits and dangers.

About EMDR Therapy

EMDR therapy stands for “eye movement desensitization and reprocessing.” It is an interactive psychotherapy approach used to relieve trauma and psychological stress.

REM sleep – rapid eye movement – is the reason that EMDR therapy works. EMDR simulates REM sleep in a session in order for you to “go back” to the traumatic incident so you can process it and reframe the event. In EMDR, you are essentially changing the narrative of your trauma or adding positive “images” to your memories. Treatment generally takes around 12 sessions to complete.

According to licensed therapist and author, Kati Morton, “EMDR therapy helps you internalize positive cognitions around a negative trauma.”

EMDR is, therefore, a way of altering a negative or traumatic incident to bring in positive cognitions. This helps you regain control and feel supported in the traumatic scenario. EMDR allows you to bring your own resources into the trauma and remove the feeling of helplessness that many people with PTSD face. With the help of your therapist, you will work through different scenarios to find one that works for you.

The Eight Phases of EMDR Therapy

EMDR therapy consists of eight distinct phases. There is no set amount of time for your therapist to work on each stage, as each trauma is different.

  1. History and treatment planning: The evaluation phase that allows your therapist to identify your trauma.
  2. Preparation: You will learn coping skills and techniques to deal with the emotional distress you’re experiencing.
  3. Assessment: Your therapist identifies specific memories that will be targeted during EMDR.
  4. Desensitization: The disturbing event is evaluated to change the trauma-related sensory experiences and associations.
  5. Installation: Here, the therapist attempts to increase the strength of positive cognition, which is supposed to replace the negative one.
  6. Body scan: The body is scanned to check for somatic responses from the targeted event. If tension is present, your therapist will target this area for further processing.
  7. Closure: The therapist teaches you self-control techniques to bring you back to a state of equilibrium.
  8. Re-evaluation: Once the treatment is over, you will be asked to evaluate your progress with your therapist

Benefits of EMDR Therapy

EMDR therapy can be a valuable short-term treatment for posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and complex PTSD. Numerous independent and controlled studies have verified this approach as an effective treatment for PTSD, and it is one of the Veterans Affairs’ recommended options to treat the effects of trauma. Evidence has shown that EMDR can help patients both in the short term and over a longer period.

The benefits of EMDR therapy include:

  • It provides a safe space to work through trauma, as recalling triggering experiences is thought to be less upsetting when your attention is diverted – for example, while your therapist directs your eye movements
  • You are able to face traumatic thoughts and memories without having a strong psychological response
  • Over time, EMDR therapy can lessen the negative effects traumatic memories have on you
  • It is thought to be effective for people who struggle to talk about their past experiences
  • It can also be used in the treatment of anxiety, depression, addictions and panic attacks

EMDR Therapy Side Effects and Dangers

In terms of side-effects, EMDR therapy is considered safe, and there are few dangers to consider. That said, there are some reported side-effects, including:

  • Vivid, realistic dreams
  • Light-headedness
  • Heightened awareness
  • Resurfacing of hidden traumatic memories
  • Can be emotionally stressful or traumatic during treatment

EMDR therapy can help you reprocess traumas, regain control and avoid retraumatization. Many people worry about reliving triggering experiences in EMDR in case it traumatizes them further. However, these sessions allow you to relive the traumatic experiences in brief doses with direction from your therapist.

It’s important to talk to your health provider if you are worried about the side-effects of EMDR therapy. He or she can talk you through the benefits and dangers of this mode of treatment and help you find a therapist you can trust.

article references

APA Reference
Smith, E. (2019, October 9). What Is EMDR Therapy? Definition, Side-Effects and Benefits, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 16 from

Last Updated: October 15, 2019

Medically reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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