What is eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EMDR)?

Eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EMDR) is a therapeutic process used to treat psychological traumas, such as war experiences, natural disasters, road accidents and assault, though it is increasingly being used in other situations too. People may develop PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) from a range of life experiences.

The theory is that after a distressing event, a person may feel overwhelmed and unable to process the information like a normal memory. EMDR has a detailed 8-stage protocol:

  1. History and treatment planning: which includes a discussion of the issue/event which has bought the client to therapy
  2. Preparation: for many clients this can take as little as 1-4 sessions, for others it may be much longer. The duration of this stage is tailored to the client's needs and the aim is to build a relationship of trust between the client and therapist.
  3. Assessment: during this phase, the client is asked to identify a specific image associated with the event discussed in stage one. The client is asked first to choose a negative self-expression such as 'I am in danger', 'I am bad' and to find the positive expression to oppose it: 'I am safe', 'I am good'. In brief, the idea here is to help the client become comfortable with the idea that the negative association is in the past, though it may feel locked in the present, and that the positive affirmation is actually more suitable to the present moment.
  4. Desensitisation: this stage deals with the clients responses as the identified issue changes and its disturbing elements are resolved.
  5. Installation: this stage aims to solidify the positive belief that the client has identified to replace their original negative belief.
  6. Body scan: after the positive belief has been installed, the therapist will ask the client to bring the issue to mind, to see if there is any residual tension in the client's body. If so, the aim is to take these physical sensations and memories and translate them to a verbal mode of expression, thus resolving the physical sensations and memories associated with the traumatic event. 
  7. Closure: this stage, which ends each session, ensures the client is leaving the therapy session feeling better than they did before
  8. Reevaluation: this stage opens each new session. The therapist uses it to assess whether positive changes have been maintained and whether there are any new issues to address.

EMDR is characterised by specific techniques which aid in the process outlined above and distinguish EMDR from any other therapy. An EMDR therapist may employ bilateral stimulation techniques such as left-to-right eye movements, sounds or taps during EMDR therapy, to help distressing memories lose their intensity and become more like "ordinary" memories. Clients report that they feel better able to cope with traumatic memories as well as experiencing less stress and anxiety in general.

Appropriate EMDR practitioners are fully qualified mental health professionals who have undertaken further training in EMDR, and are members of the association EMDR UK & Ireland.

NICE recommends EMDR for the treatment of PTSD.

EMDR therapist Joanna Head explains further in this video:

Who benefits from eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EMDR)?

Clinical trials have demonstrated EMDR's effectiveness in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but it has also been used to help in anxiety, phobias, depression and bereavement.

Welldoing.org EMDR therapist Linda Newbold:

"EMDR has the potential to get to the root of your difficulties and help eradicate them from your body and mind in a way that prevents them from returning ever again. Whilst it’s been demonstrated to effectively clear the effects of trauma and post-traumatic stress, it can also be used for other issues where the symptoms such as anxiety, depression, stress and panic arise. You may well find yourself either avoiding people or places or over-reacting in certain situations, possibly with excessive anger or tears or fear, and your personal and work relationships start to suffer. If so, you may have suffered trauma at some time in your life."

Further reading

EMDR therapy transformed my life

EMDR took the edge off my panic

How EMDR can support you through trauma

Overcoming claustrophobia with EMDR

Relevant organisations

EMDR UK and Ireland

This information has been vetted by a professional member of the welldoing.org directory

Last updated on 10 June 2020