What is EMDR?

In 1987, psychologist Dr Francine Shapiro made the chance observation that eye movements can reduce the intensity of disturbing thoughts, under certains conditions. Dr Shapiro studied this effect scientifically, and in 1989 reported success using Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR) to treat victims of trauma (Journal of Traumatic Stress).

These days, EMDR integrates elements of many effective psychotherapies to maximise treatment effects. These include:

  • Psychodynamic
  • Cognitive behavioural
  • Interpersonal
  • Experiential, and
  • Body centred therapies

What happens when you are traumatised?

Generally your body manages new information and experiences without you being aware of it. However, when something traumatic and out of the ordinary occurs, your natural coping mechanism can become overloaded. This overloading can result in disturbing experiences remaining ‘frozen’, or unprocessed in the limbic system of your brain, causing you to continue to have strong emotional responses, as if you were still in danger.


Often disturbing events happen in our lives that stay with us. The brain cannot process information as it ordinarily does. One moment can become ‘frozen in time’ and remembering the trauma may feel as bad as going through it for the first time. This is because the images, sounds, smells and feelings still seem to be there – they haven’t changed. Such memories have a lasting negative effect that interferes with the way a person sees the world and the way that they relate to other people. Often the memory itself is long forgotten, but the painful feelings such as anxiety, panic, anger or despair are continually triggered in the present. EMDR uses bilateral stimulation (that is, stimulating both sides of the brain alternately) to facilitate the unlocking of ‘frozen’ memories. This allows connections to be formed between the limbic system and the neocortex of your brain, so that memories are made sense of, integrated, and lose their emotional intensity.

EMDR has a positive effect on how the brain processes information. Following an EMDR session, the person no longer relives the trauma. They still recall that an incident happened, but it no longer feels upsetting.

What is an EMDR session like and how long does it take?

One or more sessions are required for the therapist to understand the nature of the problem and to decide whether EMDR is an appropriate treatment. The therapist will also discuss EMDR with you more fully and give you an opportunity to ask questions. The typical EMDR session lasts from 60-90 minutes. The type of problem, life circumstances and the amount of previous trauma will determine how many treatment sessions are necessary.

During EMDR, the therapist works with the client to identify a specific problem as a focus for the treatment session. The client then calls to mind the disturbing issue or event, what was seen, felt, heard, thought, etc. The therapist will then begin eye movements or other bilateral stimulation. These eye movements are used until the memory becomes less disturbing and is associated with a positive thought and belief about yourself.

With repeated sets of eye movements, the memory tends to change in such a way that it loses its painful intensity and simply becomes a neutral memory of an event in the past. Other associated memories may also heal at the same time. This linking of related memories can lead to a dramatic and rapid improvement in many aspects of your life.

Side Effects

EMDR can accelerate therapy by resolving the impact of your past traumas and allowing you to live more fully in the present. It is not, however, appropriate for everyone. The process is rapid, and any disturbing experiences, if they occur at all, last for a comparatively short period of time. Nevertheless, you need to be aware of, and willing to experience, the strong feelings and disturbing thoughts, which sometimes occur during sessions. EMDR targets memory networks. In the 48 hours after a session, you may find yourself remembering or thinking about things you had forgotten about or hadn’t thought of in years. It is important to discuss whether or not you are ready for EMDR with your therapist, and for your life to be generally settled and stable when commencing.

Who should have EMDR?

EMDR has very strong evidence as an effective therapy for people who have experienced trauma in adulthood. It is also thought by many to be of assistance for people who have had a history of trauma beginning in childhood. As long as you are stable, without any major changes currently occurring, EMDR is considered a safe and potentially effective therapy.

Will I will remain in control and empowered?

During EMDR treatment, you will remain in control, fully alert and wide-awake. This is not a form of hypnosis and you can stop the process at any time. Throughout the session, the therapist will support and facilitate your own self-healing and intervene as little as possible. Reprocessing is usually experienced as something that happens spontaneously, and new connections and insights are felt to arise quite naturally from within. As a result, most people experience EMDR as being a natural and very empowering therapy.

What evidence is there that EMDR is a successful treatment?

EMDR is an innovative clinical treatment which has successfully helped over a million individuals. The validity and reliability of EMDR has been established by rigorous research. There are now over 20 controlled clinical studies into EMDR that have found it to effectively decrease or eliminate the symptoms of PTSD for the majority of clients.

The Australian Psychological Society (APS) has recently noted EMDR as a Level 1 treatment for PTSD in their recent published results for ‘Evidence-Based Psychological Interventions: A Literature Review’ (2010) for both young people and adults. This is the highest rating that can be applied to a specific therapeutic approach.

EMDR is also endorsed by:

  • The World Health Organisation – 2013
  • The International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies – 2009
  • National Health and Medical Research Council – 2007
  • American Psychiatric Association – 2004
  • US Department of Veterans Affairs and Department of Defense – 2004
  • Northern Ireland Department of Health – 2003
  • Dutch Guidelines of Mental Health Care – 2003
  • Israel National Council for Mental Health – 2002
  • Clinical Division of the American Psychological Association – 1998

What Are The Advantages Of EMDR Over Other Treatment Approaches?

  • Treatment is focussed on the symptoms and conducted in session
  • EMDR has comparable results to that of other trauma treatments such as exposure therapy, but over a shorter timeframe
  • Studies have shown that 77-90% of clients with PTSD were able to eliminate their symptoms after 3-7 sessions of EMDR (without homework)

Further resources

EMDR Asia www.emdr-asia.org
– This umbrella organisation covers EMDR Associations in the Asia – Pacific region.

EMDR Europe www.emdr-europe.org
– This umbrella organisation covers EMDR Associations in Europe.

EMDR International Association www.emdria.org
– In spite of the name, this association covers USA only.

EMDR Ibero-America www.emdriberoamerica.org
– This umbrella organisation covers EMDR Associations in the South America region.

A comprehensive list of links to many other EMDR Associations worldwide can be found at www.emdr.com/emdr-organizations.html or www.emdrtherapistnetwork.com/emdria.html




Source: EMDR Association of Australia www.emdraa.org.au