Medically reviewed by Katelyn Hagerty, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 9/19/2022
There are many different types of therapy available today for many different conditions.
From cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) to exposure therapy and more, each type of psychotherapy can help those struggling with different issues.
One of the overall goals of therapy is to relieve emotional distress and mental health problems. It can help those experiencing depression, anxiety, negative emotions, relationship challenges and so much more.
Many forms of psychotherapy even deal with trauma and traumatic experiences — as is the case with eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy.
But what is EMDR therapy, and is it an effective form of therapy?
Learn more about what EMDR is, as well as the benefits and effectiveness of eye movement therapy and how this type of therapy works.
EMDR therapy stands for eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy, a type of psychotherapy for those struggling with past traumatic events.
A relatively new form of psychotherapy, eye movement therapy was developed in 1987 by psychologist Francine Shapiro after she discovered that eye movements have a desensitizing effect on distressing or disturbing memories.
This discovery was combined with some concepts of cognitive-behavioral therapy to create a procedure called eye movement desensitization (EMD), which can help alleviate distress from traumatic memories.
EMDR therapy — also referred to as rapid eye movement therapy — aims to reduce the symptoms of trauma by changing how the traumatic memories are stored in the brain and resolving unprocessed traumatic memories. Specifically, it is designed to break any associations you have between certain memories and negative symptoms.
This therapy technique uses rhythmic left-right stimulations of audio tones or physical sensations such as taps or eye movements — also known as bilateral stimulation. While you focus on the traumatic memory, bilateral stimulation reduces the memory's emotional impact, allowing you to heal from the fear and pain associated with the trauma.
But how does it work?
According to the theory behind EMDR therapy, traumatic and painful memories can cause post-traumatic stress when they aren’t completely processed.
When distress from a disturbing event is still present, upsetting images, thoughts and emotions can make us feel like we’re back in that moment. This triggers our “fight-or-flight” response, a psychological reaction to what our bodies perceive is a harmful event.
EMDR therapy helps the brain process and heal from these memories. You’ll still remember the experience, but your fight-or-flight response from the original event will no longer be triggered by the memory.
While the exact reasons why it works are unknown, some mental health professionals believe EMDR therapy is effective because recalling distressing events may feel less emotionally upsetting when you aren’t giving the memories your full attention.
Specifically, the bilateral stimulation used in EMDR gives you physical sensations to focus on while you access painful memories and unwanted thoughts.
This helps to dim the intensity of the memory, giving you the space to process it without an overwhelming psychological response.
Eye movement therapy is typically done one to two times per week for six to 12 sessions, with some patients needing fewer sessions or more sessions. Each session focuses on a mix of past memories, the present issues and future actions.
EMDR involves eight phases of treatment that occur each session with an EMDR therapist.
We break down each phase of EMDR therapy below.
The first phase involves getting your complete history. This could include discussing painful memories, events or experiences from the past, as well as your current stresses. The therapist will work with you to identify targets for treatment, which could include traumatic memories, current triggers and future goals.
The therapist will explain EMDR treatment and introduce you to the procedures. You may practice eye movements and other parts of the therapy. The therapist may also instruct you to use certain metaphors and stop signals for a sense of control during the treatment session.
First, you’ll select one of the targeted memories identified in phase one. Then you identify several components of the targeted memory, such as:
A vivid mental image related to the memory
A negative belief
Related emotions and body sensations
You’ll also be asked to identify a positive belief about yourself related to the mental picture of the memory and rate this belief according to how true it is.
You’ll focus on the memory while engaging in eye movements or other stimulation sets.
After each stimulation set, the therapist will ask you to discuss any insights, thoughts, memories, feelings or images that came to mind. Any negative sensations you still experience will become the focus of the next set.
This process will continue until you no longer find the target memory distressing.
The fifth phase of EMDR strengthens the positive belief identified in phase three.
The therapist will take you through more stimulation sets while you think of the target memory and positive belief.
You’ll be asked to observe your physical response while thinking of the target memory and the positive belief and note if there is residual distress.
If you report any remaining distress, the therapist will take you through more stimulation sets until it’s resolved.
Closure is used to end every session. During this phase, you and your therapist will discuss the positive steps made and how to keep them going daily.
You may also be assigned homework between sessions, which can include:
Daily journaling to track progress and relaxation techniques learned in the session
Practicing self-help techniques, such as visualization
The next session starts with reevaluation. The therapist will ask you about your current psychological state and whether the treatment and self-relaxation techniques are working.
The therapist will also ask if any targeted memories have emerged since the last session.
The most common use for eye movement therapy is for treating post-traumatic stress disorder. However, EMDR therapy may also help relieve symptoms from other mental health concerns.
EMDR therapy helps people recover from trauma and other distressing life experiences. Such experiences may include post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety disorders, depression and panic disorders.
Traumatic events can have a lasting impact on a person’s mental health, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Some people may even develop longer-lasting symptoms that lead to a PTSD diagnosis.
PTSD affects about 9 million U.S. adults. Women are two to three times more likely to experience PTSD.
Our guide on PTSD symptoms explains more about the impact post-traumatic stress disorder has on women specifically.
Beyond PTSD, rapid eye movement therapy can also be used as a treatment for:
EMDR therapy may be used on its own or alongside other psychotherapy techniques such as cognitive-behavioral therapy or talk therapy.
Rapid eye movement therapy may be suggested as a treatment option if typical antidepressants for PTSD, like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), don’t work. Some studies have shown that only 50 to 60 percent of those with PTSD respond to treatment with SSRIs.
If you are currently taking medication — such as fluoxetine (Prozac®) or venlafaxine (Effexor®) — to manage symptoms of PTSD, depression or anxiety, be sure to let your EMDR therapist know before you begin treatment.
The benefits of EMDR therapy extend beyond PTSD and relief from a traumatic memory.
Other benefits of rapid eye movement therapy include:
Changing negative thinking. EMDR can help you identify, challenge and even change negative thoughts cluttering your mind.
Decreasing chronic pain.Research shows that bilateral stimulation activates the region of the brain associated with relaxation and comfortable feelings.
Improving self-esteem. EMDR works by targeting distressing memories and negative thoughts to learn how to process and heal from them.
Minimal talking. In EMDR, you don't have to divulge every detail of your painful experience like you would in talk therapy. This makes EMDR particularly useful for people who have difficulty talking about their trauma.
While there may be skepticism that making eye movements can help ease the pain of traumatic memory, multiple studies have shown EMDR therapy to be an effective treatment.
A 2014 review of 24 studies suggests that EMDR therapy can help relieve emotional distress after adverse experiences, ease physical symptoms like pain or muscle tension and may work more quickly and effectively than trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy.
A 2017 study comparing EMDR to CBT for treating symptoms of panic disorder found that EMDR is just as effective as cognitive behavioral therapy.
A 2015 study of 32 people with depression found that 68 percent of those receiving EMDR therapy showed full remission after treatment and more improvements in depression symptoms overall and fewer relapses over a year later than people receiving treatment as usual.
One small pilot study found that EMDR therapy was safe and effective for treating PTSD in people with a psychotic disorder, and reduced symptoms of depression and anxiety.
Several medical organizations — including the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and the American Psychological Association — have recognized or conditionally recommended EMDR as an effective treatment for PTSD.
EMDR therapy is a relatively new — but very effective — method of helping people with traumatic memories.
Though best known for treating PTSD, ongoing research shows it can help those with other conditions such as anxiety, phobias and panic disorders.
While eye movement therapy can’t treat all mental health conditions, it can make a big difference for people struggling with painful events in their past.
If you are experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder or other mental health disorders, you can speak with a mental health provider and start an evaluation to find the right treatment plan for you.