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Upclose of woman's eye for EMDR therapy

What Is EMDR Therapy … And Is It Right For Me?

A lot has been written about EMDR Therapy. In fact, EMDR has generated a fair bit of controversy over the years. Initially there was skepticism within the mental health profession by practitioners opposed to the emergence of this new and seemingly strange therapy that involved eye movements. We now know, from a vast body of research, that EMDR is an effective and comprehensive psychotherapy for many types of challenges people encounter. More than 20 randomized clinical trials demonstrate its effectiveness in treating trauma and trauma-related disorders. There is also evidence demonstrating EMDR’s effectiveness with a broad range of issues suggesting it’s not exclusively for people experiencing trauma-based disorders. For example, EMDR has been used to treat challenges associated with depression, anxiety, phobias, bipolar disorder, addiction, sleep disturbance, eating disorders, complex trauma, dissociation, and performance anxiety, among others.

In this post, I’ll explain a bit about how EMDR Therapy came about, how it works, and how to find the right EMDR therapist for you.

EMDR letters carved on wood

EMDR: An Unexpected Discovery

To understand what EMDR therapy is all about, let’s go back to 1987 and an unexpected experience in the natural world. Francine Shapiro, clinical psychologist and developer of EMDR, observed while walking outdoors one day that a number of distressing thoughts in her mind suddenly lost their negative emotional charge. Even when she brought up those same memories a while later, they no longer felt as upsetting or compelling. Shapiro soon realized that there was a co-occurring process taking place while she was focusing on the distressing memories – her eyes were also spontaneously and rapidly moving back and forth. This chance experience prompted Shapiro to begin a process of informal inquiry that evolved into formal clinical research and ultimately, became her life’s work.

The unexpected initial connection between eye movements and distressing memories prompted Shapiro to eventually title her approach Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. Unfortunately, she realized too late that her choice of name was not the best descriptive title. That’s because we now know that EMDR’s treatment effects are not just achievable through the exclusive use of eye movements. We can also use various bilateral dual attention stimuli such as alternating tactile stimuli like tapping or through the use of auditory stimuli using a headset that plays alternating sounds. However, by the Shapiro realized her error, the acronym EMDR had become quite widely known so the name has remained unchanged despite the limitations of its title.

How Does EMDR Work?

It’s important to understand that EMDR is a comprehensive form of psychotherapy. It is not a simple technique or a quick fix. Rather it is a standardized and complex methodology made up of a variety of components that should not be done in the absence of a trained therapist.

EMDR is based on the model of Adaptive Information Processing (AIP). Without geeking-out on too many details, the AIP model maintains that mental health problems or pathologies are the result of the brain’s inability to adaptively process or encode traumatic or disturbing information associated with adverse, early life experiences. This means that the ability to integrate these experiences in a healthy and adaptive manner cannot be achieved either during or after the event. Therefore, the information pertaining to these traumatic or distressing experiences gets stored in the brain as raw, unprocessed data.

This data consists of sensory information such as images, sounds, smells, tastes, or physical sensations experienced at the time of the event. When something in a person’s life reminds them or triggers memories of the event this unprocessed information can surface. According to the EMDR International Association (EMDRIA), “Memories thereby become susceptible to dysfunctional recall with respect to time, place, and context and may be experienced in fragmented form. This impairment in linkage and the resultant inadequate integration contribute to a continuation of symptoms”.

EMDR is a therapeutic process that facilitates the body’s natural healing capabilities by supporting effective reprocessing of traumatic events or adverse life experiences so they are resolved in a way that allows people to make peace with their past.

This healing occurs within a multi-phased treatment approach:

  1. History & Treatment Planning
  2. Preparation
  3. Assessment
  4. Desensitization
  5. Installation
  6. Body Scan
  7. Closure
  8. Reevaluation

How Long Does It Take To Experience Improvements From EMDR?

How quickly a person will move in and out of these phases depends on the individual and their life experiences. It typically takes one or more sessions to completely process one adverse experience or traumatic memory (Phases 3-8). Often, people have several memories included in their treatment plan.

Completing the history and assessment (Phase 1) also takes some time and this varies depending on the nature of a person’s past and the degree of adversity they experienced. Preparing someone to begin trauma reprocessing (Phase 2) focuses on building trust in the therapeutic relationship and ensuring the client’s ability to calm themself during therapy if they experience a negative emotional state. The speed at which someone achieves this “readiness” for reprocessing is individual and again, depends on how they have adapted to their past experiences.

EMDR focuses not only on the past, but on the present and the future. Once past memories have been resolved, therapy changes focus to these other two prongs to ensure complete resolution of the problem in a person’s life. EMDRIA explains it this way:

“The goal of EMDR therapy is to process completely the traumatic experiences that are causing problems and to include new ones that are needed for full health. Complete treatment of a single EMDR trauma target involves a three-pronged protocol to alleviate the symptoms and address the complete clinical picture. The three prongs include:

  1. Past memories
  2. Present disturbance
  3. Future actions”

You’re probably getting the picture by now that EMDR isn’t just thinking about a bad experience while moving your eyes back and forth. There’s a lot more to it than that. At the end of the day, it’s therapy and that’s a deeply personal and intense relationship with another person who is trained to support and guide you towards creating meaningful change that will let you live your life with a greater sense of ease.

Woman with her fingers up for EMDR therapy

How to Find an EMDR Therapist?

EMDR therapy is practiced worldwide and training is offered in a variety of settings and locations. There are several international associations that have been established to foster and support best practices associated with training, certification, and research in EMDR. These independent professional organizations include: EMDR Asia, EMDR Europe, and EMDRIA (North & South America). Finding a therapist who has completed a training program accredited by one of these organizations ensures the program’s content meets the basic minimum standards designed to ensure best practice of this treatment modality.

Therapists who have completed EMDR Basic Training have met the minimum requirements to utilize EMDR therapy appropriately and effectively in their clinical practice. To become a certified EMDR therapist requires additional training and consultation beyond that offered in the basic training. To find a therapist who is qualified to offer EMDR training you can begin by looking at the “Find A Therapist” directory in one of the regional EMDR associations in your area. For example, EMDR Canada has such a directory and you can search it by geographic location to find a therapist near you (www.emdrcanada.org).

At East Coast Psychotherapy & Trauma Clinic, we recruit therapists who are committed to advanced professional mental health training. We have several EMDR-trained therapists who specialize in the treatment of trauma. But remember, you needn’t have experienced an event so traumatic that it’s left you with a diagnosable trauma-related disorder. We all have encountered negative experiences in our lives. For some of us, these difficult events have resulted in feeling stuck and unable to move forward. EMDR therapy helps people resolve these life-limiting experiences from the past so they feel more equipped to move forward and engage in a life that is healthy and satisfying.


Beth Toomey, Registered Clinical Social Worker, East Coast Psychotherapy & Trauma Clinic, North Sydnev

About The Author

Beth Toomey is the founder & clinical director of the East Coast Psychotherapy & Trauma Clinic. She is a Registered Clinical Social Worker, EMDR Certified Therapist & EMDR Consultant. Beth has extensive experience working with individuals who have PTSD and trauma including veterans and first responders.