A form of psychotherapy that helps individuals recover from traumatic events, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy is growing in popularity as a treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This structured therapy focuses on changing the way the brain processes a negative memory to ultimately reduce or eliminate symptoms of traumatic stress disorder. Learn more about how EMDR works, the treatment process and who may benefit from it.

How Does EMDR Work?

Incorporated as one part of an individualized treatment plan, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy lean on the Adaptive Information Processing (AIP) model discovered by EMDR’s founder, Francine Shapiro, Ph.D. According to the American Psychiatric Association, the AIP model suggests that unprocessed memories about distressing events “contain the emotions, thoughts, beliefs and physical sensations that occurred at the time of the event.” When the memories are triggered, they produce symptoms associated with PTSD, such as flashbacks, anxiety attacks and mood changes.

EMDR works by the patient first accessing a troubling memory and pinpointing negative beliefs associated with the traumatic memory. For example, an individual who was an assault victim may feel they are weak. The patient then forms a positive belief to replace the negative one. In this example, the positive belief could be that they are strong. During the rapid eye movement portion of EMDR, the therapist uses bilateral stimulation to elicit eye movements while the individual focuses on an external stimulus and the chosen positive belief. The process is repeated until the memory is no longer distressing. At the conclusion of EMDR therapy, the brain has processed the negative event on both sides, and the positive beliefs are installed.


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The 8 Phases of EMDR Therapy

In EMDR, there are eight phases of treatment. EMDR is conducted over the course of multiple sessions with generally 6-12 sessions needed. For some, repeating EMDR therapy for different types of painful events is needed to overcome multiple issues.

Phase 1: Information Gathering

This first portion of EMDR involves discovering parts of the patient’s past that are contributing to post-traumatic stress disorder, such as certain events. In this phase, goals for treatment are created and the likelihood of treatment to treat PTSD symptoms is discussed.

Phase 2: Preparation

It’s important to feel safe and well-prepared prior to any course of treatment including EMDR. The preparation phase involves the establishment of a safe space and an understanding of the treatment process. The therapist may also discuss stress reduction techniques that can be employed during treatment.

Phase 3: Assessment

Following phases one and two, the assessment phase helps narrow down the specific memories or events that affect the patient’s mental health the most. It is in this phase that negative emotions and beliefs are identified. The EMDR therapist will also help the patient identify the positive beliefs that replace the negative ones.

Phase 4: Desensitization

During desensitization, bilateral movements are used to induce eye movements and evoke physiological arousal to negative stimuli. This phase is the beginning of EMDR itself, as all the physical sensations related to a negative event are identified and processed.

Phase 5: Installation

The installation phase is where the positive replacement belief is inserted in place of the negative belief. Often, the belief itself is identified in phase three, but may be a new belief discovered during desensitization.

Phase 6: Body Scan

Evaluating the patient’s physiological response to the traumatic memory following the previous phases is how the therapist determines the progress made during EMDR. The goal is for symptoms to be greatly reduced or eliminated by this phase.

Phase 7: Stabilization

Once the brain learns to process a traumatic memory in a healthy way, patients often still need help navigating negative emotions that occur in between sessions. The stabilization phase of EMDR is when the therapist discusses self-soothing techniques that can be used until the next session. This is also a “cool down” period, where the therapist ensures the patient is calm and safe following treatment.

Phase 8: Closure & Follow-Up Planning

In this final phase, EMDR therapy progress is reviewed to determine if additional sessions are needed. This is also when the therapist will set expectations for what a patient might experience in the future and address any follow-up care plans.

Is EMDR Treatment Effective?

A review of 24 randomized controlled trials found that EMDR is effective in the treatment of PTSD symptoms due to trauma or negative life events. Additionally, studies showed EMDR offers quicker results when it comes to symptom reduction when compared with trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy. Furthermore, the research indicates EMDR is effective in reducing negative emotions related to a traumatic event and may assist in the reduction of somatic symptoms related to trauma. Overall, EMDR is an effective, noninvasive treatment option for treating PTSD and trauma.

Who May Benefit From EMDR Therapy?

Unlike other psychological treatments and medication, EMDR has been shown to be effective in the reduction of emotional distress for individuals of all ages. Its ability to reduce symptoms of post-traumatic stress has been widely researched since the first clinical trial of EMDR in 1989. However, it is now known that EMDR positively affects those suffering from anxiety associated with other mental health conditions, such as:

  • Eating disorders
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder
  • Major depression
  • Dissociative disorders
  • Acute stress disorder
  • Personality disorders

It is important to note that while EMDR sessions may assist in reducing symptoms from previously disturbing events, it is not generally effective for individuals experiencing mental health conditions that are hereditary or caused by a physical illness.

Find an EMDR Therapist Today

If you or a loved one is struggling to overcome a disturbing event, EMDR treatment may help. Many individuals have been successfully treated over the past 30 years with this noninvasive, effective treatment option. EMDR therapy may be used in conjunction with talk therapy to retrain the brain’s response to a traumatic event while reducing symptoms of anxiety disorders. Contact Camelback Recovery at (602) 466-9880 to find an EMDR therapist in our Arizona treatment center today.