emdr session woman

What Is EMDR? (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing)


Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a psychotherapy approach designed for working with distressing or traumatic memories.  The theory behind EMDR is that many psychological difficulties are the result of distressing life experiences which have not been stored in memory properly and are said to be unprocessed or blocked. These traumatic memories may need some help to become processed, and EMDR is one way to do this.

What is special about trauma memories?

Normal memories are stored by a part of the brain called the hippocampus.

You can think of the hippocampus as a sort of librarian which catalogues (processes) events and stores them in the right place.  However, some traumatic events (such as accidents, abuse, disasters, or violence) are so overwhelming that the hippocampus is unable to store them properly.  When this happens memories are stored in their raw, unprocessed, form. These trauma memories are easily triggered, leading them to replay and cause distress over and again.


What will I be asked to do in an EMDR session?

There are a number of steps to EMDR treatment, but some of the key stages are to:

  1. History taking
  2. Preparation
  3. Assessment
  4. Desensitisation
  5. Installation
  6. Body Scan
  7. Closure
  8. Re-assessment / Re-appraisal

These steps take place over the duration of the therapy in a carefully managed and structured way.

Why do I need to make eye movements?

In EMDR you are asked to pay attention from one side to another while thinking about your memory.  One way to pay attention from left to right is to follow the therapist’s finger as they move it from side-to-side in your line of vision.  Alternative versions of EMDR ask you to pay attention to sounds or tapping sensations which occur in sequence from left to right.

This side-to-side motion is called bilateral stimulation.  It has been found to enhance memory processing and there are a number of theories explaining how it might do this.  The important thing is to be able to find a form of bilateral stimulation that you are comfortable with.

What is EMDR used to treat?

This is very strong evidence that EMDR is an effective treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and it is recommended by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) for PTSD. EMDR is now used as an effective form of psychotherapy for anxiety, depression, eating disorders, sexual abuse, adverse childhood experiences, rape, assaults, medically unexplained symptoms, road traffic accidents, traumatic childbirth experiences, bereavement and loss, and a substantial number of additionally traumatic life experiences.

How long does treatment take?

EMDR sessions are sometimes slightly longer than typical therapy sessions (up to 90 minutes).  The number of sessions needed will depend on the type and severity of trauma which you experienced.  NICE estimate that

8-12 sessions may be necessary to treat simpler traumas, with more sessions necessary for multiple traumas.