What is EMDR?

EMDR was created in the 1980’s by Francine Shapiro and it is a comprehensive form of therapy. EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing.

Eye Movement– Much has been learned about this therapy since the day it was named for eye movements. Now it appears that the beneficial effects are facilitated by an alternating stimulation of the right and left hemispheres of the brain. Eye movements accomplish this, as do bilateral alternating taps or tones.

Desensitization– refers to the removal of the emotional disturbance associated with a traumatic memory or feeling.

Reprocessing– refers to the replacement of the unhealthy, negative beliefs associated with traumatic memories or experiences (i.e. experiences of anxiety, depression), with more healthy, positive beliefs.

EMDR is now widely recognized as a first line treatment of trauma (as per www.emdr.com website e.g., American Psychiatric Association, 2004; Bisson & Andrew, 2007; Bleich et al., 2002; CREST, 2003; DVA/DoD, 2004; Foa et al., 2009; INSERM, 2004; NICE, 2005).

Not only can EMDR be used to heal trauma, but it can be used for many other issues as well! Read on to find out.

What is EMDR used for?

EMDR is used to treat troubling symptoms such as anxiety, depression, guilt, anger, and post-traumatic reactions. To date, EMDR therapy has helped an estimated half million people of all ages receive relief from many different kinds of psychological distress. EMDR can also be used to help people experiencing addictions, compulsive behaviours (as in OCD), and disordered eating. See below for a more complete list.

EMDR has also been successfully used with people on the autism spectrum for a variety of issues including PTSD, anxiety, and OCD. With EMDR therapy, people on the spectrum have experienced a reduction in symptoms, increased verbal ability, improved social interaction skills, improved self-regulation, and general functioning (https://emdria.omeka.net/).

When is EMDR appropriate?

EMDR therapy can be a very intense emotional experience, temporarily. lt is not appropriate for those who are unwilling or unable to tolerate highly disturbing emotions. An EMDR therapist must take a thorough history to determine if and how EMDR can be used as part of an overall treatment plan. EMDR has been successfully used to treat many problems and issues (see www.emdr.com/clinical-applications for references). Some of them include:




Sexual abuse


Panic attacks

Phantom Limb Pain

Peak performance


Reactive Attachment Disorder

Disordered eating

Dissociative disorders

Complicated grief

Performance anxiety



Generalized Anxiety Disorder

Medical procedures


Chronic Pain

Chronic Eczema

Gastrointestinal problems

Negative body image

What are the precautions?

There are specific procedures to be followed depending on your presenting problem, emotional stability, medical condition, and other factors. lt is very important that the therapist be formally trained in EMDR. Otherwise, there is a risk that EMDR would be incomplete, ineffective, or even harmful.

How long does EMDR therapy take?

This depends on several factors including the nature of the problem being treated, the client’s history, and the client’s ability to tolerate high levels of disturbance. ln some cases, one EMDR treatment session is enough. Usually it takes weeks to months, but sometimes years of treatment are required. When EMDR therapy is used appropriately, it can significantly shorten the overall length of time in therapy.

What age group can EMDR be used with?

EMDR is appropriate for people ages 1 to 101++.

How does EMDR work?

When a client and a therapist do EMDR, the therapist asks the client to bring to mind the experience the client wants to work on, the negative thinking caused by the experience, and the new thoughts the client wants to have. Then the therapist moves her or his fingers rapidly back and forth in front of the client. The client follows the fingers with his or her eyes. After a number of sets of movements, clients generally think and feel quite differently about the experience, similar experiences, and themselves. Healing has started.

You don’t need eye movements for EMDR to work. Taps to hands, right and left, sounds alternating ear-to-ear, and even alternating movements by the client can work instead. Electronic tappers (aka buzzies) can also facilitate the bilateral stimulation needed. The key seems to be the alternating stimulation of the two sides of the brain.

Based on brain imaging technology, it is believed that EMDR works much like the Rapid Eye Movements experienced during sleep. According to Edward S. Hume, M.D., J.D., it looks like we need to dream to go over the events of our lives, extract guidance for the future, and throw away mere detail. Normal memory is literally re-membered: it is re-assembled from stored clues or instructions, which rely on contextual cues to fill in details.

EMDR may come close enough to imitating those eye movements we experience during sleep. Since the client is already awake in EMDR, the dream does not have to end. lt can continue while the client holds onto the here-and-now, and the work of the dream may be finished. At least, this is Dr. Hume’s theory of how EMDR works.

The above information is from the EMDR Basic Training Manual (Wilensky, rev. 2019) unless otherwise noted.