Written by Katherine Nicholls
Katherine Nicholls
Counselling Directory Content Team

Reviewed by Kaye Bewley
Last updated 21st September 2022 | Next update due 20th September 2025

EMDR or Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprocessing is a type of therapy designed to help stop difficult memories from causing distress. Here, we explore what EMDR involves and how it can help.

Dealing with traumatic memories

For some people, when something traumatic has happened to them, the memory of their experience comes crashing back into their mind, forcing them to relive the event with the same intensity of feeling - like it's taking place in the present moment. These experiences may present as flashbacks or nightmares and are thought to occur because the mind was simply too overwhelmed during the event to process what was going on.

As a result, these unprocessed memories and the accompanying sights, sounds, thoughts and feelings are stored in the brain in 'raw' form. Here, they can be accessed when something in everyday life triggers a recollection of the original event.

While it isn't possible to erase these memories, the process of EMDR can alter the way these traumatic memories are stored within the brain - making them easier to manage.

What is EMDR?

EMDR is a form of psychotherapy developed in the 1980s by American psychologist Francine Shapiro. While walking in a park, Shapiro made a chance observation that certain eye movements appeared to reduce the negative emotion associated with her own traumatic memories. When she experimented, she found that others also exhibited a similar response to eye movements. After further study and experimentation, EMDR was developed. 

EMDR therapy is increasingly being recommended for other issues too, including:

Counsellor and supervisor, Anne Millne-Riley, explains more about EMDR therapy.

Today, the therapy is recommended by the National Institute of Health and Care Excellence (NICE) for the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The aims of EMDR therapy

Of course, we are all different, and so what works for one person may not work for another. However, the common aims of EMDR therapy include:

  • Reduce re-experiencing trauma memories.
  • Help you feel more able to cope with and manage trauma memories without needing to avoid potential triggers.
  • Help you feel more able to engage in and enjoy pleasurable activities and relationships.
  • Reduce feelings of stress, anxiety, irritation, and hypervigilance - allowing you to rest well, address pressure and/or conflict, and go about your daily business without feeling fearful and prone to panic.
  • Reduce feelings of isolation, hopelessness, and depression.
  • Boost self-confidence and self-esteem.

How does EMDR work?

When traumatic events happen, the body's natural coping mechanisms can be overwhelmed, and subsequently, the memory isn't always processed adequately. 

EMDR therapy looks to help you properly process these traumatic memories, reducing their impact and helping you develop healthy coping mechanisms. It is achieved through an eight-phase approach to address the past, present, and future aspects of stored memory. This involves recalling distressing events while receiving 'bilateral sensory input', including side-to-side eye movements, hand tapping, and auditory tones.

What are the eight steps of EMDR?

During the initial phase, your therapist will ask you about your history, including what you are experiencing, whether or not you're taking any medication and what kind of support you're already receiving (if any). Getting to know you in this way will help your therapist determine whether or not EMDR is the best course of action for you.

Before EMDR treatment begins, your therapist will talk you through the theory, answering any questions you may have. At this point, your therapist will spend some time going through relaxation exercises (these may include guided meditations or breathing techniques) to utilise during the treatment and during times of stress outside of your sessions. Therapists refer to this second phase as preparation.

At this point, you will be led through phases three to six. You will now target specific distressing memories with eye movements or other forms of left-right stimulation such as taps or sounds. To start with you will be asked to select an image to represent the event and then to think about positive and negative thoughts, the amount of distress you feel and where you feel it in your body.

Your therapist will then use bilateral eye movements (or taps or sounds) in a series of 'sets' lasting around 25 seconds. After each set, you will be asked for feedback on your experience during the preceding set, before starting the eye movements again.

Your therapist may also ask you to recall the original memory and ask you how it seems to you now. This will continue until your feelings of distress have reduced and you're experiencing more positive thoughts and feelings.

The seventh phase is known as closure and it offers you time to feel calm again using the relaxation exercises you learned at the beginning of the session. Finally, the eighth phase is called re-evaluation - and this is effectively the first step in your next session. This phase will see you and your therapist working together to consider how you are coping and whether or not you need to address the same memory as last time or if you are able to move on to something different.

EMDR can support you to reprocess these experiences, to move between stability and safety to dip into the painful, distressing material and to re-emerge. The process continues outside of sessions, so there is a value in adopting coping strategies to practise and use at times when experiences are a struggle. EMDR is a remarkable, creative and powerful therapy.

- Fiona Corbett, Accredited BACP and EMDR therapist and Clinical Supervisor.

How will I feel after my EMDR session?

The nature of EMDR means that after your session the treatment will continue to be active in your awareness. This means that you may find yourself thinking about the thoughts you focused on during your session and you may feel the same emotions you experienced during your session.

To help you through this process, allow yourself time and space to relax after an EMDR session and utilise the relaxation techniques you have learned. Be sure to discuss your feelings with your therapist in your next session. While everyone is different, over time these feelings will generally become less intense, and many people say they feel a strong sense of relief after their sessions. 

How do I know my therapist is qualified?

As it stands there are no official laws in position that stipulate the level of training and experience required to practice EMDR therapy. However, industry benchmarks and professional bodies recommend that practitioners should be trained mental health professionals who have undertaken further training in EMDR.

When visiting an EMDR therapist for the first time, we would always advise that you ask to see a copy of their qualifications and insurance, before you commit to a session.

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