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EMDR therapy: What is eye movement desensitization and reprocessing? And how does it work?

EMDR therapy: What is eye movement desensitization and reprocessing? And how does it work?

EMDR stands for eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, and it is a psychotherapy approach that is primarily used to treat trauma-related disorders and emotional distress. Developed by Francine Shapiro in the late 1980s, EMDR has gained recognition as an effective treatment for various mental health issues, particularly post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic memories.

Thriveworks recognizes the value of evidence-based therapeutic approaches like eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) in helping individuals heal from trauma and related emotional distress.Thriveworks therapists who offer EMDR follow a structured and comprehensive process to facilitate healing and promote emotional resilience. 

Learn more about this type of therapy, and how it can help individuals recover from traumatic experiences.

What Is EMDR Therapy?

As explained above, EMDR therapy is a type of therapy that is particularly geared towards treating those with severe trauma. EMDR works by having the person retell and discuss their trauma history and event(s) while following their therapist’s finger. 

By following the therapist’s finger while engaging in trauma retelling, the brain is able to process, understand, and resolve reactivity to trauma and trauma symptoms. Research shows that using this technique helps the brain process trauma and resolve symptoms.

Improving Coping Mechanisms

EMDR is a great way to significantly reduce symptom distress experienced due to its focus on improving the efficacy of your coping mechanisms and overall distress tolerance capacities. EMDR focuses on providing you with more personal capacities and power over your emotions. It also strengthens the tools that you already have to increase efficiency and efficacy of coping skills used. 

Further, the coping mechanisms developed and discussed in EMDR therapy are the keys to maintaining progress and sustaining perceived benefits. 

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Who Is EMDR Not Suitable For?

EMDR is not typically suitable for those who are in the acute stage of trauma and/or who do not have basic coping and distress tolerance skill training. An individual needs to have a certain level of distress tolerance to be able to undertake EMDR therapy.

What Are the 4 Steps of EMDR?

The process of EMDR does have 4 distinguishable stages that the therapist and client move through at their own pace and based off of personal successes and growth. According to the American Psychological Association, EMDR has 8 phases:

  • Phase 1: History-taking
  • Phase 2: Preparing the client
  • Phase 3: Assessing the target memory
  • Phases 4-7: Processing the memory to adaptive resolution
  • Phase 8: Evaluating treatment results

These phases are linear in nature, but there is no specified timeframe or time limitation for each phase. Progression to the next phase is determined by the progress and comfort level of the client.

What Are the Pros and Cons of EMDR?

EMDR is a wonderful and moderately new, evidence-based therapeutic approach that has been helpful for millions of people in successfully processing trauma. Some pros or benefits of EMDR are:

  • Significant reductions in levels of daily distress
  • Reductions in intensity and frequency of symptoms
  • Return to normal functioning with a low likelihood of symptom relapse

There are some potential cons or forewarnings to keep in mind, including that: 

  • EMDR is a very intensive therapy so a client must be ready and willing to work hard
  • It requires daily and weekly commitment to sessions and homework in between sessions 
  • It evokes distressing emotions, it requires your full physical and mental presence 
  • It is successful only if you are also taking care of yourself outside of session

EMDR offers a structured and evidence-based approach to addressing trauma, helping individuals process distressing memories and beliefs, leading to reduced emotional intensity and improved well-being. EMDR may not be suitable for everyone, and individual responses can vary. Additionally, some individuals might find the process emotionally challenging, requiring careful support from a trained therapist. 

How EMDR Therapy Works

As mentioned earlier, EMDR therapy works by having the person retell and discuss their trauma history and event(s) while following their therapist’s finger. Here’s a more insightful look at the process of EMDR therapy:

  • Assessment and treatment planning: Therapists conduct a thorough assessment to understand the client’s history, trauma-related experiences, and current symptoms. Based on this assessment, a personalized treatment plan is developed, outlining the target memories or events that will be addressed using EMDR.
  • Stabilization and preparation: Therapists help clients establish a sense of safety and emotional stability before delving into the EMDR process. Coping strategies and relaxation techniques may be introduced to ensure clients are adequately prepared.
  • Targeting traumatic memories: Clients work with their therapists to identify specific traumatic memories that are causing distress. These memories become the focus of the EMDR sessions.
  • Desensitization and reprocessing: During EMDR sessions, bilateral stimulation is used to help clients process and reframe the traumatic memories. This can involve following the therapist’s finger movements with their eyes, listening to auditory cues, or engaging in tactile stimulation.
  • Installation of positive beliefs: As the traumatic memories are processed, therapists guide clients in integrating more positive and adaptive beliefs about themselves and their experiences. This helps transform negative self-perceptions associated with the trauma.
  • Continued monitoring and progress: Throughout the EMDR process, therapists monitor clients’ emotional responses and adjust the approach as needed. The goal is to ensure that clients experience a reduction in distress and an improvement in their overall well-being.

Thriveworks therapists who use EMDR are not only trained in the technical aspects of the approach but also in creating a safe and supportive therapeutic environment. They work collaboratively with clients, ensuring they are actively engaged in the process and comfortable with each step.

EMDR at Thriveworks is typically integrated within a broader treatment plan that may include other therapeutic modalities and interventions based on the client’s unique needs and goals. The aim is to provide comprehensive and individualized care that promotes healing, resilience, and a sense of empowerment for individuals recovering from trauma.

Benefits of EMDR Therapy

EMDR therapy is a successful therapeutic intervention that has helped many clients. EMDR has many of the below benefits to both physical and mental health benefits:

  • Increases quality and frequency of intrapersonal and interpersonal communication
  • Increases distress tolerance skills
  • Increases personal insight into past and present
  • Increases acceptance skills
  • Increases ability to be fully present in your daily life
  • Increases ability to potentially find meaning and construct a personal narrative
  • Aids the brain in healing and remembering the trauma without causing significant distress and daily impairment

EMDR is used for helping individuals process distressing memories and beliefs, leading to reduced emotional intensity and improved well-being. EMDR can help someone gain “power” over their anxiety and stress by providing them with a way to “rewire” their brain to more effectively process and cope with experienced daily stressors. 

Is EMDR Therapy Right for You?

EMDR might be right for you if you possess the following characteristics:

  • Baseline mindfulness and distress tolerance skills that are effective and that you readily engage in
  • Able and willing to discuss and confront trauma experienced in great detail for prolonged periods of time
  • Have a minimum of 2 hours per week to devote to sessions and/or homework
  • Have a desire to increase self-efficacy and personal insight
  • Have a strong social support system and network 
  • Have a well-established self-care and wellness routine
  • Are self-motivated
  • Are able to be vulnerable and self-exploratory and open to new ideas

Again, EMDR is an intensive, powerful but effective therapeutic approach that requires a client to be fully committed and to be fully communicative both inside and outside of sessions.

EMDR Therapy Safety and Side Effects

Here are some potential side effects from EMDR therapy: 

  • Discomfort
  • Nightmares 
  • Flashbacks 
  • Intrusive thoughts and memories 
  • Increased irritability 
  • Increase in hypervigilance 
  • Potential resurfacing of new memories

One of the most effective ways to ensure safety and avoid potential re-traumatization during sessions is to have a strong therapeutic relationship with their clinician as well as personal insight to be able to recognize and communicate when they are having difficulty processing during session.

Conditions That EMDR Can Help With

EMDR can help with the following mental illnesses, again if the client meets personal criteria and fitness to participate in this therapy: 

Again, conditions in which someone has experienced a traumatic event(s) that significantly cause disruption to personal functioning can benefit from EMDR. For example, an individual who experienced trauma but does not have a PTSD diagnosis can still significantly benefit from EMDR therapy.

Considering EMDR: What to Expect

EMDR is a very intensive therapy so a client must be ready and willing to work hard: It requires daily and weekly commitment to sessions and homework in between sessions, it evokes distressing emotions, it requires your full physical and mental presence, and it is successful only if you are also taking care of yourself outside of session. 

You can expect to have to retell in vivid details repeatedly past traumatic events and associated events from that trauma as well as having to spend multiple sessions (weeks/months) on one particular aspect of trauma. 

Healing from Traumatic Experiences

Again, there is no specific timeline for healing from traumatic experiences but the most effective healing from trauma occurs when you have a strong therapeutic alliance with your clinician and are able and willing to gain insight and explore your trauma while also holding yourself accountable to regularly practicing distress tolerance skills to manage discomfort and symptoms arisen from discussing said trauma. 

Typically, you’ll advance to the next stages of EMDR therapy when you’ve mastered distress tolerance skills and your therapist has witnessed a significant decrease in negative/distressing symptomatology. 

Addressing Anxiety and Stress

EMDR can be a very helpful tool in processing anxiety and stress. While it can be helpful and effective for generalized anxiety and levels of high, chronic stress, it works best when symptoms are severe or there is a specific event(s) that are underlying mechanisms for anxiety and stress presentation.

Finding a Qualified EMDR Therapist

Finding a qualified EMDR therapist is an easy thing to do! Thriveworks has EMDR therapists who have that proper training, and they’re ready to work with you.. 

To find the right EMDR therapist for you, you can use our online booking tool or call our scheduling specialists. If you choose the former route, you can browse all of our therapists who specialize in EMDR therapy yourself – and then schedule with the one that you feel would be a good fit. If you choose the latter route, one of our team members will first ask you a few questions to understand what your needs and preferences are and then help you find a provider that checks those boxes. Either way, we can’t wait to meet you and get started.  

  • Clinical writer
  • Editorial writer
  • Clinical reviewer
  • 4 sources
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Alexandra “Alex” Cromer is a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) who has 4 years of experience partnering with adults, families, adolescents, and couples seeking help with depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and trauma-related disorders.

Christine Ridley, Resident in Counseling in Winston-Salem, NC

Christine Ridley is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker who specializes in adolescent and adult anxiety, depression, mood and thought disorders, addictive behaviors, and co-dependency issues.

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Jason CrosbyMental Health Writer

Jason Crosby is a Senior Copywriter at Thriveworks. He received his BA in English Writing from Montana State University with a minor in English Literature. Previously, Jason was a freelance writer for publications based in Seattle, WA, and Austin, TX.

We only use authoritative, trusted, and current sources in our articles. Read our editorial policy to learn more about our efforts to deliver factual, trustworthy information.


  • Shapiro, F. (2014). The Role of Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) Therapy in Medicine: Addressing the Psychological and Physical Symptoms Stemming from Adverse Life Experiences. National Center for Biotechnology Information.

  • Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy. (2017, May 25).

  • Gainer, D. (2020, July). A flash of hope: Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy. PubMed Central (PMC).

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